PILOT MOUNTAIN – Three straight road victories.
Two straight playoff wins over East Surry.
One regional championship trophy on the bus.
Polk County’s countdown to a state championship appearance is complete.
The Wolverines completed a remarkable run to the first regional title in school history, defeating East Surry 27-25, 28-30, 25-12, 27-25 in Thursday’s 1A West championship before a standing-room only crowd in the Cardinals’ gym.
In a span of six days, Polk County (20-8) knocked off the top three seeds in the West bracket, each on their home court, to earn another road trip that the Wolverines will gladly make – to N.C. State on Saturday, where Polk County will meet Falls Lake Academy at 2:30 p.m. for the 1A state championship.
“It’s so surreal,” said Polk County head coach Molly Hill, who also earned her 100th career win in her fifth season. “We have been so close every single year that I’ve been here, and I just broke down in happy tears because we finally made it.
“It’s what Ansley (Lynch) and I were talking about, that we’re finally here and we finally did it. It feels so good to accomplish that goal that we’ve been so close to for so many years.”
Resilient throughout the playoffs, Polk County needed every bit of that determination late in the match to stave off an East Surry team (25-5) determined to force a deciding fifth set.
Having cruised through the third set to take a 2-1 lead, Polk County slowly built an advantage in the fourth, taking an 18-12 advantage.
But back came the Cardinals – whom Polk County defeated in last year’s quarterfinals – inching closer and finally tying the match at 21-21. The teams swapped points before East freshman Kylie Bruner served an ace and the Cardinals added another point for a 24-22 edge and two chances to win the set.
Hill called a timeout.
“I told them just to relax, to play our game and to have fun. I knew that we were fine,” Hill said. “We practice that exact scenario every single day in practice, so I told them, we do this every single day. They know what to expect and they know what we gotta do. We had to put the ball down, and we had to get that first swing kill and get the ball back. And that’s what they did.”
Polk came out of the timeout and immediately scored two points to even the match at 24. A Maggie Holt kill again gave East Surry a set point, but Polk fought off that one as well, then added another tally to reach match point.
Kristen Hall dug an East Surry bump, Sydney Waldman delivered a set and Grace Lauer slammed home the winning point off an East Surry block, the Cardinals unable to corral the ricochet.
“It’s awesome. I knew we could do it,” said Lynch, one of the team’s two seniors. “We dropped a couple of times even though we had a lead in each game, but we finally pulled it together.”
Lauer led Polk County with 17 kills, with Marilyn Castillo recording 16 kills. Mireya Roman had 14 blocks, Lynch had 30 digs and Sydney Waldman finished with 36 assists. Lynch began the night as the state 1A leader in digs, with Waldman ranked second among 1A players in assists.
As expected in a regional final, the first two sets were tight throughout, with neither team leading by more than six points at any moment.
The Wolverines lead much of the opening set before East Surry rallied late to take a 23-31 advantage. Following a Polk timeout, Roman scored a point at the net and Hall served an ace to tie the set at 23. The Cardinals had one set point, but Polk pushed the set to 25-25 before a Lauer kill and another point at the net gave the Wolverines the early lead.
The second set followed that pattern – Polk grabbed a 5-0 lead and kept the edge until back-to-back Morgan Smith aces evened the match at 17. The teams then swapped points – and swapped points, and swapped points. Polk County had a pair of opportunities to win the set, but East Surry staved off each, and the Cardinals finally closed the set at 30-28 to even the match.
A close third set turned Polk County’s way midway through, with Carolina Castillo serving a pair of aces and Hall and Marilyn Castillo notching kills during a 7-0 run that gave the Wolverines a 19-9 lead. A scary moment then ensued as East’s Smith crashed to the floor and slid into the gym’s rear wall trying to save a point. She missed the remainder of the set, but returned for the fourth.
Lauer closed the third set a few moments later with a kill, and Polk was one set away from a state championship trip.
That set would come soon enough.
“It feels so good,” Lynch said. “It feels so good.”