The Magnificent 7: The wonderful return of conference tournaments

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Updated: October 19, 2021

Photo by Angie Hurdle

There’s a wonderful uncertainty about conference tournaments that you can’t experience until you see it yourself.

Look no further than Monday night at Orange. The Lady Panthers volleyball team faced Western Alamance, a team that Orange had little trouble with in the regular season. Just last week, Orange traveled to Elon, could have parked in a one-hour zone and faced no repercussions, disposing of the Warriors 25-22, 25-8 and 25-15.

It was considerably different on Monday. No one could explain why, but the Warriors jumped out to a 2-sets-to-nothing lead. Perhaps Orange looked ahead to a potential third matchup against Cedar Ridge on Tuesday. Perhaps Western Alamance was more motivated to make a run for a 3A State Playoff birth.

A week after dominating the Warriors, the Lady Panthers had to rally and rally in order to pull out its second five-set win of the season, and its first since the season opener against Jordan. To start the fifth set, Western Alamance led 5-0 after several close calls went against Orange, which sparked a comeback triggered by junior Allie Wilkerson, who has consecutive kills.

After Avery Miller earned a side out for Orange to reduce the Western Alamance lead to 10-6, Orange sophomore libero Sadye Porter lined up to serve. And she would serve nine consecutive points to finish out the match. During that run, Wilkerson had two blocks and two kills, including match point as Orange finally earned a 15-10 fifth set win and the match.

The lesson is that in conference tournaments, nothing is ever certain.

While conference tournaments were common in men’s and women’s basketball during the Big 8 Conference, they were a non-entity in volleyball. But not in the Central Carolina Conference. And now, on Tuesday night, Orange and Cedar Ridge will meet for a third time this season.

As Western Alamance proved on Monday, it’s hard to beat a team three times.

It was another strong week for Hillsborough volleyball last week, which brings us to the Magnificent 7. Here are the seven athletes who established themselves last week on the tennis court, volleyball court, soccer pitch and gridiron:

Olivia Aitkin: A three-sport athlete at Cedar Ridge, Aitkin qualified for the 3A Central Women’s Golf Regionals. Aitkin competed in the Central Carolina Conference Tournament at Mill Creek Country Club in Mebane. Aitkin also recently committed to play softball at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Melissa Benkowitz: The Cedar Ridge volleyball team had three players register 100 kills during the regular season. Benkowitz, who was arguably East Chapel Hill’s best player in 2020, transferred to Cedar Ridge over the summer and has grown into her role as an outside hitter. In the regular season finale against Carrboro last Wednesday at Red Wolves Gymnasium, Benkowitz led Cedar Ridge with eight kills. She also had six digs as the Red Wolves broke the school record for most wins in a regular season with 23. Cedar Ridge also finished with a perfect 12-0 record in the CCC after sweeping Williams on Monday.

Chloe Patz: A senior co-Captain for the Cedar Ridge women’s tennis team, Patz earned her first trip to the Mideast Regionals during the Central Carolina Conference tournament on Friday. Patz defeated a participant from Northwood to extend her season. Patz has been Cedar Ridge’s regular #2 singles player this season and has had several key victories, including one against Northwood on September 27 to ensure a 6-3 win. Northwood would go on to claim a share of the CCC championship with Walter Williams.

Jera Hargrove: Reached the 3A Mideast Regional women’s tennis finals for the third time in her career last week. Hargrove teamed with Erin Sollars in doubles play to defeat Williams’ Kaori Naruse and Lauren Turner during the Central Carolina Conference Tournament at the Burlington Tennis Center. Hargrove reached the Mideast Regionals in her freshman and sophomore years as a singles player. She was one of six Orange women’s tennis players who qualified for the Mideast Regionals.

Avery Miller: Had 12 kills and eight digs as the Orange volleyball team ended the regular season with a 3-0 win over Eastern Alamance on Thursday. It was Miller’s final regular season game for the Lady Panthers. Last Tuesday, Miller had five kills in a win over Western Alamance.

Ella Wimsatt: Led Orange with eleven kills in the win over Western Alamance. Also had a strong game against Eastern Alamance in Mebane as Orange secured fourth place in the CCC. The Lady Panthers will likely host a 3A State Playoff game on Saturday.

Konnor Johnson: The Orange freshman midfielder scored two goals as the Panthers defeated Person 4-2 on Wednesday at Rocket Stadium. Johnson also set up several scoring opportunities for the Panthers in its 1-1 draw with Cedar Ridge at Orange Soccer Park on October 11. It was the first brace for Johnson in his varsity career. He has four goals on the season.

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