CHARLOTTE – The Providence volleyball team had done things the right way this season, and the dividends were starting to pay off when the Panthers met their nemesis Ardrey Kell on Oct. 18 with the So. Meck 7 title hanging in the balance.
Coming into the game, the Panthers were 18-8, but were starting to heat up. Their first four losses of the season – to Rock Hill, Nation Ford, South Iredell and Ardrey Kell – all came in 3-2 thrillers that Providence couldn’t quite put away.
They had a bad two-day stretch against Charlotte powers Ardrey Kell and Charlotte Catholic, and then the Panthers fell in matches against Hough and in another five-setter to Cox Mill.
All six of those teams are having great seasons on their own, so none sticks out as a bad loss to second-year Panther coach Margaret Malone, who had her team on a four-game win streak as the Knights awaited for the third time this season.
But Ardrey Kell was 20-4 and the unbeaten regular-season So. Meck 7 champs. They were seasoned and came out on fire, winning all of the big points in the first two sets and taking 25-21 and 25-16 advantages as the teams headed into the third set.
“We didn’t play very well offensively (in the first two sets) so I think we knew we had to change it up in all areas of the court,” Malone said. “I think from there it was sort of do or die for us. We played like that in the third set, and that gave us some momentum going into the final sets.”
The Panthers won the third set 27-25 and tied the match at 2 with a tense 25-22 win in the fourth.
In the fifth set that had been so unkind to the Panthers all season long, they pulled together for an improbable 15-13 comeback win that got them all the way back from 2-0 down, gave them their fifth-straight win, the conference’s tournament title and momentum heading into this week’s playoffs.
“We knew we were going to play a tough out-of-conference schedule to help prepare us for the season,” Malone said. “We’ve played a lot of five-set matches, so we’ve been in this position before, but we hadn’t sealed the deal. I think all of those matches prepared us to finally win a five-set match and do it when, to us, it really mattered.”
The Panthers were led by Annie Leonard (14 kills), Sarah Nnafelz (14 kills, three blocks), Alanna Harder (10 kills), Ava LaPata (team-best 17 digs) and freshman libero Katie Cruise (55 assists, 10 digs).
Providence has been forced to share the wealth some this season with the loss of Carly Peck, a North Carolina recruit and the team’s second-leading attacker last season.
While Peck hasn’t been physically on the court, Malone said she has continued to be a great teammate and leader.
But her absence has forced more players to step up, and they’ve responded.
“I think that’s why we’ve had so many girls step up, because they’re help filling a void Carly would have provided,” Malone said. “The girls have all done their job to benefit our team.”
Madison Cail, Carinne Greco, Alex Butters and Allie Tinkin have also stepped up, which has helped the Panthers down the stretch.
The Panthers beat Richmond County 3-0 on Oct. 23, but Malone said no matter how that game turned out, she’s happy with where her team has gotten to this season.
“We’re feeling good going into (Richmond County),” she said. “We ended up getting the No. 12 seed, which is a little lower than we expected, but we know what we have to do. We put ourselves in this situation, so we’re focusing only on Richmond.”