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North holds off South in 5-set SWC volleyball thriller

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Black Tornado win third straight following an earlier loss to South, which signified a turning point for a team

Having a short memory was imperative for North Medford in the waning moments of its match Thursday against South Medford.

Backed by its loud home crowd, the Black Tornado volleyball team had stormed out to a 2-0 set lead and was in position to put the finishing touches on a win.

But the Panthers were unfazed with their backs against the wall, taking a lead as big as nine points to win the third set. Then, down to their last point in the fourth set, trailing 24-23, junior Katie Clevenger delivered a kill and an ace on back-to-back plays and the Panthers clinched the set on a North hitting violation.

As they trotted back to the huddle to regroup for the fifth and final set, the Black Tornado got a message from assistant coach Will Turner that seemed to resonate with the team.

“He says, ‘We can’t change the past. This is now. We got to do what we can in the moment,’” senior Audrey Yechout recalled after. “Everyone just realized he’s right, we can’t change the past so we got to fight as hard as we can and get that done. And we did.”

In a set that resembled much of the back-and-forth match to that point, North took an early lead only to watch South get back within one point, 12-11, after a pair of kills from Clevenger. From there, it was all North. Senior Makayla Miller served a crucial ace to go up 13-10, then put two more serves in play that ultimately resulted in hitting errors for South.

North’s win, 25-21, 25-19, 18-25, 24-26, 15-10, was its third straight in Southwest Conference play.

“It’s just our team chemistry,” said Yechout, who led the team with 16 kills. “We always go on the court, we look each other in the eye and we’re like, ‘Hey, let’s get a smile and let’s unite.’ Because the second we unite and play as a team, we just work so well together and it’s so fluid. And I knew we were going to win that — I just knew we were going to win that.”

Although both teams had their fair share of serving errors, perhaps some of it owing to added nerves in a rivalry game, North (7-4, 3-1 SWC) didn’t miss a single serve in the fifth and closed out with a strong effort on the line from Miller, who also had a team-high 22 digs. Offensively, senior Emelia Thiring added 11 kills and senior Pa’oa Payne-Kaeo tallied 42 assists.

“The thing that we have to do is just clean up our unforced errors,” North Medford head coach Josh Elbert said. “We missed so many serves tonight, and in that fifth game we really put a lot of pressure on (South Medford) to make passes, and that’s what the difference was — we started making our serves. Nothing fancy.”

Although North gutted out the win, the end result didn’t diminish a courageous comeback from South after it came up short in each of the first two sets.

The Panthers took some time to get going in the third, though after North cut its deficit to 13-11, the Panthers went on a run kickstarted by a pair of Emily Fliegel kills and a dig that Naomi Johnson landed in a corner of the North defense for a kill.

South then got its next four points courtesy of Clevenger kills to take a 24-15 lead and clinched the set on a North service error.

Neither team led by more than three points in the tense fourth set that also featured 13 lead changes.

“Once we got (momentum) going in the fourth set, though we were down, we still had the belief that we were in it,” South head coach Robin Akpan said. “And we talked about it — ‘Hey, you guys just got to go out and find your spots, believe in each other and play hard to the finish.’ They earned each point there.”

South took a 21-20 lead on a first-touch kill from Clevenger, but gave up three straight on a combination of errors and one hitting violation. With a 23-all tie, South mishandled a hit from North senior Jackie Aukusitino to put the Panthers on their last point. That’s when they turned to Clevenger, who, coming off a 30-kill performance on Tuesday against Roseburg, followed it up with 31 kills and nine digs on Thursday.

“More toward the end of the match, Katie especially was a go-to,” Akpan said. “She consistently can find the open window in the block and put the ball down. She’s a very talented player and we’re really excited we have her, to be able to dish the ball to when we need her. She’s a great outlet.”

Fliegel added 13 kills, sophomore Lola Horton had five kills, senior Brynn Allen had a team-high 15 digs and senior Alexis Deschweinitz had 21 assists for the Panthers (6-7, 1-3 SWC).

“Our team showed a lot of tenacity to be down two and have those tight sets in there and still have that confidence to play through,” Akpan said. “In the end, I think we did get a little tired and it was a great crowd here tonight. I think feeling a little bit of the adversity, but being able to rise back and compete against it, we really did a good job with that. I think we maybe need to play our game a little bit more.”

Although the win didn’t count toward its conference record, South won the first meeting between the two teams during the Sept. 18 Rogue Valley Classic, denying the Black Tornado a chance to repeat as champions of their home tournament.

That day proved to be a turning point for North as the team reconfigured its defense and rotation. Although Elbert was tight-lipped Thursday on exactly what those changes were, the team believes their new look will better serve them against its SWC foes, including South. Since that loss, North has won three straight.

“It was an automatic, we need to win tonight, because that day at the tournament we just weren’t together,” Yechout said. “Since then, we changed up our defense and we really came together as a team. Beating South was a priority tonight and I’m just really proud of how we played and fought ‘til the end.”

Reach Will Denner at 541-776-4479 or wdenner@mailtribune.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford's Jackie Aukusitino get the ball over the net away from South Medford defnders for a point.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford's Emelia Thiring hits the ball for a point againt South Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford's Paije Carpenter makes a hit for a point against South Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford's Audrey Yechout pushes the ball over for a point againt South Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford's Audrey Yechout hits the ball from the outside for a point againt South Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford's Emelia Thiring hits the ball for a point againt South Medford's Naomi Johnson.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford's Emelia Thiring makes a hit for a point against South Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford's Paije Carpenter pushes the ball in an open spot for a point against South Medford.