by Jeff Laughlin

I grew up in this gym. Not this exact one — this visit served as my first to Greensboro College’s Haynes Gym — but I knew the nuances before I entered the building.

I could hear the rising noise before a big play. Voices thundered over the tiny court like they did in middle school and high school. Loud as it was, if I had known anyone watching the Greensboro College volleyball team, I could have picked her out individually.

I remembered playing on that kind of floor, cavernous echoes beating down upon the other team. As part of the home squad, I knew how to shout above the clamor. I recognized each squeak of rubber on wood like a mouse crushed underfoot. I understood the humid, sweat-soaked air. Haynes felt like home.

I was in Greensboro College’s house, though, and I could not ignore the advantage. I took a seat in the student section for a while. They sat directly behind Ferrum College’s server, offering a rising clatter of stomps and shouts as she put the ball in play. Ferrum College is in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia.

The Pride had a perfect 3-0 conference record entering the match, but since I knew very little about the talent level of those matches, I had little expectation. The first set provided enough information. The crowd delighted as Greensboro thoroughly dominated early on. By the time Ferrum actually put up a 3-point run, the Pride had amassed a 19-12 lead. Like any sport, no lead proves insurmountable, but the odds of winning a set against an obvious athletic advantage after going down 7 points are somewhere between lottery and lightning strike.

That advantage proved too much to end the set. Greensboro College’s front line made it nearly impossible for Ferrum’s attack to contain any ferocity. Greensboro’s blocking ability moved from side to side with facility. Ferrum’s had to consistently avoid solid ball contact unless it came off the net.

Adding to that difficulty, the Pride could play a comfortable defense — a relaxed combination of covering the weak side for tip shots and the middle for any kind of long-distance attack. That style of defense took a lot of communication and an avoidance of over-rotation, but it proved to be no problem.

The Pride looked incredibly well coached. They moved with impunity and very rarely had problems with players going for the same ball. So much of Division III volleyball seems to be about waiting for mistakes rather than playing above the net or forcing your athletic prowess. The Pride played it both ways. They began every set with a lead — forcing Ferrum to guard against the front line’s power — before settling back into a beautiful defensive set up aimed to counter the desperate attacks of a wounded team.

Shayla Moss led several mini-runs by mixing terrific cut shots and attacks to the middle. When the defense shifted to her, Liz Widenhouse would attack from the middle or come forward to add her power to the front line. Halfway through the second set, with Greensboro up 14-10, Dallas Hasty made one of several well-timed plays with a kill to the center of an overworked Ferrum defense. Hasty may not have done this often, but when she got prominently involved in the offense, the Greensboro attacks looked effortless and nearly impossible to contain. She sparked a 5-0 run that put the second set out of reach, much like the first, 19-10. They closed out to win the second, 25-16.

Though Greensboro looked dominant, they still had to be precise. They methodically placed every bump and set — almost mechanically allowing their power hitters to move into the net. That precision added to their already impressive physical supremacy as they cruised to an early third set lead as Holly Anders accentuated a 6-0 run with an ace.

A Ferrum timeout could not quell the surge.

The 6-0 sideout lasted forever, with Ferrum delicately placing three different would-be kills in different spots. The Pride scrambled just to get the ball over on all three, before regaining control of the point and winning it. In all three saves, the team did not overpursue, trusting the ability of their teammates to dig. They managed to stay unified, leading to a soul-crushing point. Even when Ferrum played their best, attacking the middle and the sides in tandem, Greensboro had definitive answers. They communicated with ease and covered each other. They defined teamwork.

When they finally lost a point, making it 8-1, it took a weak call from a judge on a double hit. Ferrum, exhausted and crushed, made their mini-runs, but the Pride — their fans at full-pitch — took four straight points to close to match point.

Ferrum set up defensively for the beginning of the end, and watched a ball land near the dead center of the court; a miscommunication. Maybe the gym got too loud, or maybe they gave up on it. Either way, it was fitting: Ferrum lost sight of the outcome worrying about who would make the next play. Greensboro never seemed to have that problem.

The fans filed out into the night and I assumed that the gym got quiet, save for a few stragglers cleaning up. I headed home, but with the odd and otherworldy feeling that my parents would be there to pick me up and ask me how the game went.

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