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PRINCETON — Many have tried, but now the other six teams in the 1-A Carolina Conference have failed to hand the Princeton High volleyball team a regular-season loss for two years.
On Thursday, the Bulldogs (20-3, 12-0) pulled through their toughest challenge of the season so far in a matchup against second-place Salemburg Lakewood.
“Lakewood is definitely our biggest rival,” senior Riley Whitley said. “It feels good to beat them twice.”
At times caught in a battle too close for comfort, Princeton found a way to close out its 24th conference victory in a row in a 25-18, 25-21, 22-25, 25-13 decision.
The secret to the success? It’s pretty simple, head coach Paige Renfrow said.
“They’re just an easy team to coach, a good team to coach and they have fun together on and off the court,” Renfrow said. “I think that camaraderie between the girls is a big deal on the team and it carries them through tight situations.”
Combined with a deep depth chart of well-rounded players, that rare quality to keep the pressure from building came in handy for the home team in a crucial second set, when the Bulldogs found their early lead threatened.
Coming into the match, Princeton had only dropped one set in conference play, but midway through the second set against the Leopards, the Bulldogs were in jeopardy of losing their second down as many as five points at one point.
Trailing 21-17, Princeton then won three straight points, forcing Lakewood to call a timeout to slow down the momentum. As the home team congregated on the court, still down a point, the faces weren’t solemn. Instead, everyone was smiling and laughing.
“We’ve worked really hard in practice, especially these last few weeks to really prepare for these hard games,” senior Madison Massey said.
The team wasn’t willing to let all that go to waste. Coming out of the timeout, Princeton played relaxed and confident, forcing Lakewood into mistakes that allowed Princeton to escape winning the last five points to snatch a 2-0 lead.
“That second set we came back from a big deficit and ended up winning,”Renfrow said. “Not a lot of teams can do that, but they get their mindset and they get through it.”
After going down two points, Lakewood returned the favor in the third set. The Leopards’ lead continued to grow that set, but this time, the Bulldogs could not pull their way out of it.
By the fourth set, Princeton took over for good with the teams tied at 5. The Bulldogs won 7 of the next 10 points, then 15 of the next 20 before capturing the win without much trouble.
“We made too many errors in the third set to win that third set, but the fourth set we started out with the serve, we got the first two points right out of the gate and we never let them get a run,” Renfrow.
Meredith Wooten contributed 31 assists and 16 digs in the victory, while Alaina Johnson added 13 kills and five aces and Caroline Norris compiled 15 kills.
With the regular-season now over, Princeton is poised to make a run in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1-A playoffs. Renfrow noted this year’s team is one of the strongest she’s coached.
“This year, I feel like we’re pretty strong all the way around and I think that makes a difference,” Renfrow said.