PARK HILLS — The North County volleyball team relished the opportunity to challenge Farmington for a second time after a ragged performance created a split for the MAAA Large-School regular season title last Thursday.
The Lady Raiders dominated stretches of the first and third games with visible enthusiasm, and stopped an impressive string of MAAA Tournament final appearances by the 2-time defending champs Wednesday night.
“Farmington is our rival, and it’s been 10 years since our school beat them in volleyball, so this meant everything to us,” said senior Haley Echols, who missed most of her junior season with torn knee ligaments.
Celeste Blum recorded seven kills plus nine digs, and served a pivotal 6-0 scoring spree in the decisive stanza as North County highlighted its breakout season with a 25-14, 15-25, 25-19 victory.
The result ensured a title contest pitting the top two seeds. The Lady Raiders (22-6-2) will challenge undefeated Small-School champion Valle Catholic (29-0) tonight at 7:45 p.m.
Whitney Johnson ripped a team-high 11 kills while Rachel Williams tallied nine and Madison Brown had five for the Knightettes (17-11). Sophomore setter Kourtney Knox hustled to produce 21 assists and 13 digs.
North County forced opposing blockers to regularly shift with a variety of hitting options. Freshman Emily Eaton posted a team-high eight kills while setters Jenna McGraw and Kylie Dement combined for 31 assists.
Farmington previously cruised to a straight-game home triumph behind a steady diet of middle kills while blocking a somewhat predictable attack.
“The girls did the things tonight that helped them earn the No. 2 seed,” North County coach Jackie Morris said. “We needed to spread the ball around and get our outside hitters involved. It took a great effort from everyone to beat them.”
The Lady Raiders approached the rematch with a more relaxed tone, and their confidence was fueled by a successful start.
Echols served back-to-back aces and Blum hammered two straight back sets from McGraw to establish a 17-10 lead in game one. North County closed with a 7-0 spurt that included five kills.
“It was such a mental thing last week. We saw Farmington written across the jersey, and it got into our heads,” McGraw said. “Tonight we were ready to go. Our defense stepped up, and we attacked a lot better this time.”
Farmington recovered from a quick 6-1 deficit to control a substantial part of game two after Brown served six points in a row.
Johnson followed with a punishing series of swings during a big rotation, sending down two straight overpass plays to extend an 11-10 lead. A deep push on a disguised set by Know widened the gap to 21-13.
North County regained its focus and forged ahead for the final time during game three at 8-7 after junior middle Paige Charboneau traded blocks with sophomore Kaitlynn Gilliam in a lengthy rally.
The Knightettes struggled with serve receiving down the stretch, yielding aces to three separate North County players.
Junior libero Ashley Dickey landed a serve to make it 19-10 after Echols and Eaton spiked kills from opposite sides.
“Going into last week’s game, we had a lot on our shoulders,” Echols said. We were trying to take the whole conference for ourselves. Our attitude was bad and we were down on each other. We tried to force the issue too much instead of letting things happen.”
Dickey compiled 13 digs and Echols finished with 11. Kourtney Kekec and Charboneau each had two stuff-blocks.
Williams made five blocks for the Knightettes, who will look to avenge a loss to Central in tonight’s third-place match.