RALEIGH – Maybe instead of this being the end of the road for Polk County, it marked the beginning of a new journey.
Maybe amid the tears that came slowly, but then flowed for the Wolverines in the wake of their state championship loss Saturday to Falls Lake Academy, sat the start of a path that will lead Polk County back to Reynolds Colisuem. And back again and again.
“We fought, we tried,” said Polk County head coach Molly Hill. “We’ll be back.”
The battle of the debutant state finalists fell the Firebirds’ way in three sets, 25-19, 28-26, 25-22, denying Polk County a state title in its first championship appearance.
A charter school in its fifth year of operation, Falls Lake (24-5) delivered a title-worthy performance, excelling in all phases but especially with passing and setting that often led to success at the net. The Firebirds repeatedly frustrated Polk County with off-speed attacks, tipping shots just over or past Wolverine blocks and out of reach of defenders.
Polk County (20-9), meanwhile, took into the second set to find the offensive rhythm it displayed throughout its two-week playoff run. Perhaps playing a fourth road game in eight days, and the long bus rides to and from those matches, finally took a toll. Or perhaps the bright lights of the moment unsettled nerves.
Either way, the Wolverines left Raleigh as unhappy with their play as the outcome.
“We gave it our all,” said Polk County senior Ansley Lynch. “I don’t think we played Polk County volleyball. I don’t think they saw the real Polk.”
After a shaky start in the opening set, in which Polk County fell behind 20-10, the Wolverines began to find their footing, cutting that lead in half at 21-16 on a Landry Edwards ace.
But Falls Lake stayed steady, closing the set moments later on a Hannah Collier kill.
The Wolverines finally took their first lead of the match at 6-5 in the second set, but the Firebirds responded and built a 14-10 advantage. Back came Polk, evening the match at 16-16 on back-to-back hits by Mireya Roman.
Falls Lake pulled ahead 22-18, but three straight kills by Grace Lauer helped the Wolverines even the score at 22. Polk then fought off a set point, and had one of its own at 25-24, thanks to two kills from Marilyn Castillo.
The Wolverines couldn’t convert that set point, nor another at 26-25, and Falls Lake took the final three points of the set for a 2-0 lead, an opportunity to even the match slipping away for Polk.
The third set stayed tight throughout, with Falls Lake inching ahead late at 19-15, only to see the Wolverines fight back with a Roman kill, Kristen Hall ace and Lauer kill to tie the set at 19-19. The teams swapped points until reaching 22-22, when Falls Lake put together three straight points to close out the match.
“I’m really proud of the girls for being here and making it this far,” Hill said. “The first set they were nervous, and I think that showed. It was our errors, our stuff that we were doing. The second set, we tried to relax and clean that up and fix some things on our side of the net.
“We definitely did better and we definitely did improve, but there were still a few little weaknesses that stood out too much.”
Falls Lake sophomore Chase Teal notched a triple-double – 10 kills, 18 assists and 15 digs – to earn most valuable player honors. Lauer finished with 11 kills, with Roman and Castillo each adding eight kills. Sydney Waldman had 32 assists for Polk, with Lynch posting 13 digs.
None of that mattered postgame to a Polk team that came to Raleigh determined to capture a state title.
But as the tears began to dry, as the hugs from the large Polk County contingent that showed up to back the Wolverines began to soothe the hurt feelings, pride began to take hold.
And, maybe, the first steps on that new path.
“We 100 percent plan on coming back,” Hill said. “Volleyball is growing in Polk County. We’ve developed a program. People know where Polk County is now and they know how good our program is, and that was one of my goals when I came here.
“This is definitely not an end. We’ll be back.”