MATTHEWS – When Providence beat Ardrey Kell the first time the two juggernaut volleyball teams met last month, Panthers coach Margaret Malone incentivized students with pizza and they came out in droves to witness the 3-0 win.
Naturally, when the Panthers returned to The Castle on Ardrey Kell’s campus the Knights student section was packed into a playoff-like atmosphere.
And there was a lot on the line. Aside from bragging rights between the players, many of who intermingle on club teams, Providence was 20-3 and set to be the unbeaten conference champs with a win. Ardrey Kell was 19-3, right on their heels and just a game back in conference.
The student section was large and loud, and the Knights jumped out to an 8-2 lead in the opening set. Providence got to within 18-16 after a run but could get no closer as the Knights went up 1-0.
“The environment can go one of two ways,” said UNC Wilmington commit Sarah Knafeltz, a senior middle hitter. “One, it can intimidate you and you can get super nervous or the other way is you can get super pumped up. Even though the crowd is mostly for the other team, you can use it for you. Also, just looking at my other teammates and knowing I have a libero I can count on for energy and I know she’ll get the ball to the right spot. I think that’s what really high-level volleyball is all about.”
The libero Knafeltz speaks of is senior Ava LaPata, the setter and heart and soul of the Panther attack. As Providence won each of the last four points of the second set to tie the match at 1, LaPata got pumped up and kept her team in control throughout this match and through the year, Malone said.
“Her senior leadership is incredible, and she reminds me a lot of myself as a player, which is great to coach,” Malone said. “She’s got a spitfire attitude. She’s definitely a leader that’s huge on our team and she sets the tone a lot. She knows this is it, so she’s going to be playing with everything she has the next couple of weeks.”
The Panthers got down in each set at least 4-1 early, but they fought back to win the third set in a similar fashion as the second by fighting back from a big early deficit to win it late.
In the fourth set, the Knights raced out to an 8-3 lead and held the advantage throughout until senior Emily Debe served out the final two points, giving the Panthers their first lead of the set at 25-24 and closing out the Knights 3-1. The end of the match featured huge defensive blocks from Knafelz and junior middle hitter Madison Cail, who finished with a game-high seven blocks and neutralized Ardrey Kell’s hard-hitting trio of attackers of Sania McCoy, Sydney Dorner and sophomore star Alexis Shelton.
“We blocked at the point when we needed to block. We needed to get a block we ended up getting two really big ones right when the score was 20-20,” Malone said. “They did exactly what I said with the two key blocks at the end and that’s all listening and doing what you are being told.”
While the blocks were big, the play of the night definitely came from Debe, a senior reserve who exemplifies what this team is about. After the game and her clinching serves, a few players shed tears of happiness for Debe and their win.
“Debe is the kid that works hard every day and gives it 100%. She was waiting four years for that moment and she did exactly what she was supposed to do there,” Malone said. “A kid like that deserves it 100%. She was the only person I talked to after the game because she deserved to be out there at the end of the game.”
The Panthers are proving they belong, too.
They are led by a host of attackers including Knafelz, Cail, Destiny Stewart, Gabby LaPata and Olivia Stephens.
Alanna Harder, the team’s third-leading attacker, is due back from a concussion for the Panthers’ next game, making them even stronger up front.
Katie Cruise and Ava LaPata help tie together a team that is now 21-3 overall and 12-0 in the So. Meck 7 entering their conference tournament.
The Panthers will likely get a top six seed in the NCHSAA tournament that follows, but they’re primed to make a run and will be a tough out, especially at home where they are 9-1 this season.
Malone said the Ardrey Kell win, on the road in a tough environment, is similar to a playoff game and a great experience especially having to come from behind so often.
“We’ve been here before and it’s OK,” she said. “The last time we played them we were down and it’s OK to be down. It’s a game of volleyball and a game of error, but the good thing is we were able to come back. I think we got a little bit better tonight as it went on, but I think there is a lot of room for us to progress and especially in our blocking position and making sure our middles know they are good enough to get there.”
Ava LaPata, making the stretch run of their final season together with three other seniors, said now is the time to win and that’s something the Panthers plan on doing a lot of.
“I’ve been playing with Sarah since my freshman season and playing with these girls forever,” LaPata said. “To have us win the conference and beat AK twice, this time in their gym and after they’ve been talking about it, it’s very refreshing. Providence is on top.”