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CLINCHPORT –– Having reached the state volleyball quarterfinals three straight years now, Galax knows that the northeasterly route to the final four in Richmond is a circuitous one. It starts with a three-hour excursion in the opposite direction.
Galax and Rye Cove met on the Eagles’ home floor in the Group A Division 1 quarterfinals for the third consecutive year Tuesday, and for the second time in a row Galax eked out a five-set win, riding Morgan Neff’s busy right arm down the stretch and nudging past the Region D champions 25-21, 25-27, 25-23, 10-25, 15-13.
Neff had seven of her season-high 20 kills in the fifth set, including a roll of four straight in a seven-point swing that saw the Maroon Tide (22-7) zoom from a three-point hole into a 12-8 lead. Rye Cove was able to get as close as a 14-13 deficit before Neff’s final kill hit the net cord and plopped over the other side for the clincher.
“She’s really stepped up,” Galax coach Yerrick Stoneman said. “Since the [Region C] semifinals against Bath County, she’s played about as good as I’ve seen her play. This is like home to her. It’s her third time on this court, and it’s a tough trip to make. Their coaching staff does a great job with those girls. They do all the right things.”
A junior, Neff is the lone holdover from the starting six that gave Galax its first final four appearance a year ago.
“It was really, really exciting,” she said. “We played through it and had a lot of fun. We just played our hardest and pulled through.”
What the Tide played through was a potentially disastrous 25-10 defeat in the fourth set that knotted the match at two sets apiece.
“We played well in the fourth game but a lot of it was that [Galax] didn’t,” Rye Cove coach Greg Gilliam said. “They played sloppy in the fourth game and we took advantage of it. But when we needed to come up with a play and put the ball down and run an offense, we just couldn’t do it.”
For that, Gilliam credited the Maroon Tide, which provided what the Eagles’ coach called the best defensive effort his team had seen all year. Lindsey Ayers and Carolyn Vaughan came up with 28 and 23 digs, respectively, to lead the way, with 17 more from Neff.
“No. 19 [Ayers] dug up everything we hit. It was amazing,” Gilliam said. “Her defensive performance was stellar, but the whole team was. Their defense was outstanding. Top-rate.”
For height-challenged Galax, a scrappy D has been a necessity.
“We’re not very tall,” Stoneman said, “and we don’t have a whole lot of heavy hitters so we have to rely on our quickness and our defense. I think the biggest point the whole night, it was 23-23 in the third set and that rally went a good two minutes.”
After several big saves by each team, Galax won the critical point on a tip by Carolyn Vaughan. Rye Cove answered with runs of 6-0 and 8-0 to dominate the fourth set.
Galax was inches away from taking a commanding two-set lead to start the night. A nine-point spurt in the opening set erased an 11-5 Rye Cove advantage and led to a 25-21 win for Galax. The Tide was up 25-24 in the second when a Susan Davis serve fell a couple inches long of what would have been a set-ending ace, and the Eagles won the final three points to square the match.
After six ties and four lead changes, Galax took the third set with the final point coming on a deep push to the back corner by Davis, a setter who finished with 33 assists.
Brooke Jones and Destiny Gibson were dominant at times for Rye Cove and finished with a combined 37 kills. Breanna Wallen had 49 digs and Kristin Sanders provided 48 assists.
Galax will face Region B runner-up Luray in the state quarterfinals at 12:30 Friday at VCU’s Siegel Center while Auburn and Altavista meet in the other semifinal. The championship is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday.