Saturday, September 14, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> NP ladies take three close ones

Leader sports editor

Three hotly-contested games all ended the same way, with North Pulaski narrowly pulling out victories to sweep crosstown rival Jacksonville 3-0, though the match was more competitive than the score indicates.

The hosting Lady Falcons, playing without their starting setter, won by scores of 25-23, 25-21 and 25-22. The service game proved to be the difference for the home team, which served up 18 aces out of its 38 points on serve.

“That’s one thing we’ve been good at this year,” North Pulaski coach Ben Belton said. “We’ve served the ball pretty well. Our problem is losing focus for long stretches. We did it tonight, but we managed to pull it together each time before it was too late.”

The Lady Falcons needed a win after a disappointing showing at the Spikefest tournament in Little Rock on Saturday. North Pulaski went 0-4 without winning a set. Losses to two 7A schools and defending 6A champion Greenwood didn’t bother Belton much. He was actually pleased with how competitive his team was against those powerhouse schools. But game four’s 25-3 loss to class 4A Marianna is what had Belton worried about the rest of the season.

“That was a low point,” Belton said. “We just didn’t play. It was like nobody wanted to even be there. I didn’t know what to do or expect the rest of the year after that. So coming out here and playing pretty well, for the most part anyway, was good to see. This is conference and this is what really counts.”

The win lifts North Pulaski to 2-1 in conference play and 2-9 overall. Jacksonville sinks to 0-5.

In game one, North Pulaski broke serve to start, and senior Casey Mullen reeled off four-straight points on serve, including two aces, for a 5-0 lead. That evaporated quickly. Jacksonville broke serve to make it 5-1, and Lady Devil Chanell Roy doubled Mullen’s effort. Roy served up eight-straight points, including two aces, for a 9-5 lead for the visiting team. Breezy Russell served the Lady Falcons back into a tie and things went back and forth from there up to 20.

North Pulaski finally began setting up its offense, and the result was three kills for Kiarra Evans in the Lady Falcons’ final five points. Roy’s turn to serve came back around and she scored twice to tie the game at 23. On the next point, Evans got a kill for a 24-23 NP lead, then took serve and drilled an ace to finish it.

Neither team managed much offense until late in game two. Jacksonville’s Shakyla Hill executed four kills as the Lady Red Devils began executing its passing, but the rhythm was interrupted when setter Bailea Mitchell left the game holding her side with Jacksonville trailing 23-19.

North Pulaski sophomore Raigen Thomas had three kills in the last 10 points, including the game winner. Belton calls Thomas the most athletic player on the team, who needs to be stronger mentally.

“She’s too worried about messing up,” Belton said. “When she makes a mistake she don’t want it anymore. She’s a tremendous athlete, but she’s going to have to learn to let things go and just keep playing hard.”

North Pulaski threatened to pull away early in game three, taking a 12-7 lead. But Roy took serve again and made it a one-point match before NP finally broke serve.

Megan Lewis then took serve for North Pulaski and put them up by six at 17-11. The two teams traded service breaks to 21-15, when Jacksonville’s Alexia Tolbert took the floor for the first time in the match. She made an immediate impact with an ace that went untouched. She added two more points to make it 21-19 before NP broke. Jacksonville broke right back with a kill by Hill, and Mitchell re-entered to serve the game to a tie at 22. But NP answered with the final three points. Russell broke Mitchell’s serve with a nifty play, finding a hole in Jacksonville’s defense just over the net on the far right side. She then took serve and scored the final two points to seal the match.

Jacksonville will host McClellan on Tuesday and travel to Helena-West Helena Central on Thursday. North Pulaski is at Mills on Tuesday and hosts Little Rock Christian Academy on Thursday.