FAYETTEVILLE — The journey finally ended for the second-seeded East Surry volleyball team.
The season came to a close, just shy of a state title. The trip to get there, however, was something Coach Caleb Gilley has discussed all week.
No. 2 Creedmoor Falls Lake Academy defeated the Cardinals 25-14, 25-16, 25-20 on Saturday night in the NCHSAA Class 1-A championship at Capel Arena on the campus of Fayetteville State.
The Firebirds won their second straight state title.
The Cardinals (28-4) ended the season passing their win mark from last year. It was a mark the team planned to top from the start of practice on Aug. 1. East Surry, a top seed at the time, lost in the Class 1-A West Region final to Polk County 3-1.
A goal to return to that point — and then some — became the focus for the season. And the Cardinals accomplished that on Tuesday with a 3-0 win over No. 5 Mount Holly Mountain Island Charter in the regional to propel them to Fayetteville. East Surry had only given up a set through its playoff run, until Saturday’s straight-set loss to the Firebirds (27-3).
Just before Gilley and three seniors — Allie Bruner, Morgan Smith and Maggie Holt — made their way to a post-match news conference, he mentioned that run again.
“It’s been a ton of fun, and that’s kind of what we just talked about in the locker room,” said Gilley. “Every year has been an adventure — especially with these seniors, right here. They’ve been around on varsity since they were freshmen. Every year, I feel like we got better and better.
“It was very obvious last year in the locker room that we were going to get back to that point. What happened from there, who knows. But we got back to it and we won. And I think that’s a testament to how hard these kids worked and their determination.”
And there was a steady progression in those years since Smith, Bruner and Holt were freshmen — just three of seven seniors set to graduate. Aside from winning the Northwest 1-A championship four straight seasons, the Cardinals appeared in the third round of the playoffs in 2016. East Surry followed that by advancing to the fourth round in 2017, before its loss in the regional a year later.
Bruner made mention of the outside hitter she replaced, who was a freshman on the team’s last run to a championship in 2014 — a first for the East Surry volleyball program.
“I think I improved a lot since last year — and a lot since sophomore year, when Bethany Clayton was there,” said Bruner, who ended the championship with and six kills along with Emma Brown and Holt. “She played my position, and I looked up to her because she was really good. That was some big shoes to fill, but I tried.”
East Surry lost its 8-7 lead early in the first set against the Firebirds, whose state title last season was a first in any sport for the charter school that opened its doors in 2013. That changed when Morgan Newton took serve for Falls Lake Academy. The Firebirds strung together seven points to lead 13-8.
It happened again when Hannah Collier took serve. Falls Lake Academy scored six straight points, before Bruner got a kill. East Surry trailed 20-11 then. Falls Lake Academy took four straight points again with Austin Proctor serving.
“Truthfully, Falls Lake Academy should be back here again next year,” Gilley said. “... We understand what it takes to get back. I just told them to follow this group in front of them, their lead — how hard you work in the offseason and how much you prepare going into next season will determine where we’re going to go.”