In a volleyball season that has been predictable locally, Cedar Ridge went into this week searching for something that previous teams had found.
A special senior moment.
In 2021, Phoenix Smith, Justice Wilborn, and Ava Lowry were members of a state championship squad that defeated North Iredell at Reynolds Coliseum. They were members of the first female team in school history to win a state championship.
Last year, Cameron Lloyd, Cameron Lanier, Julie Altieri, Grace Young, Anaya Carter and Melissa Benkowitz won 62 consecutive sets en route to a Central Carolina Conference regular season and tournament championship.
This year’s group of seniors had not found its senior moment.
Until Wednesday night.
In a stunning upset, Cedar Ridge shocked crosstown rival Orange 3-1 to win the CCC Tournament championship. Sophomore Claire Hargett finished with 23 kills and 14 digs, while senior setter Rachel Alverson had 46 assists and 15 digs as Cedar Ridge ended Orange’s 20-match winning streak.
Orange (22-4) suffered its first loss since August 19 and its first at home this season. The Lady Panthers won both matches in the regular season against Cedar Ridge, never allowing the Red Wolves to take more than 21 points in any of the previous six sets.
Just three weeks ago, Orange defeated the Red Wolves 25-19, 25-19 and 25-11 to sew up the CCC regular season title.
“I knew this has been possible all year,” said Cedar Ridge coach Latacha De Oliveira. “They just had to believe it. Today they believed it and today they showed it. Claire set the tone for us. Claire found holes, no matter how many people tried to block her. She found the holes, she put the ball down and came up with some big swings. I think Addie (Reid) did the same thing. That’s what we needed.”
Orange senior Ella Wimsatt had 15 kills and 20 digs for Orange.
The Lady Panthers won 35 of 36 sets during an undefeated run through the CCC regular season championship, but struggled to find a rhythm offensively on Wednesday night.
“I think that each team has evolved throughout the season,” said Orange coach Hope Heverly. “Cedar Ridge really came out with a lot of drive and desire to win tonight. They came out and had a really good match. We came out and played hard as well. Some of our X’s and O’s weren’t really following through today.”
It’s the third straight year that Cedar Ridge (15-8) has won the CCC Tournament. The Red Wolves have won either a conference regular season or tournament championship each of the past four years.
Less than two weeks ago, Cedar Ridge lost to Western Alamance and Cary Crowns. It was the first time since 2019 that the Red Wolves dropped consecutive matches.
“I think since then they’ve just brought into their game,” De Oliveria said. “They were tired of losing and started believing in themselves. We’ve had a good week. It started with a solid performance on Monday. It continued yesterday and they came in today believing it was our turn.”
Nothing about the environment inside Panther Gymnasium hinted the biggest upset in local volleyball this year was brewing. Orange’s student section didn’t start filling up until late in the first set. Even the once daunting Cedar Ridge student group, which traveled in mass regardless of location as a constant source of amusement or irritation depending on your perspective, had a pedestrian turnout.
They sure missed a stellar presentation from their team.
From the moment Wimsatt knocked over two chairs along the Orange bench trying to chase down an attack by Kayla Stoll on the first point, it was clear that this would be no easy night at the office for anyone. There were six ties in the opening set, but Orange maintained the lead until Hargett served up an ace to trigger a 6-1 Red Wolf run. Hargett, who had five kills and three digs in the opening set, delivered another ace following an Orange timeout to increase Cedar Ridge’s lead to 17-13. The Red Wolves finished the set with the final four points, closing with a thunderous strike by Addie Reid.
It was the first time since September 20 against Falls Lake, a span of eight matches, that Orange dropped the opening set.
Heverly inserted freshman Sawyer White as a setter in the second set, repositioning sophomore Katie Silcott to an outside hitter.
“We wanted to get our right side hitter involved,” Heverly said. “We wanted to broaden our hitting options.”
Orange used superior blocking to take the second set. Neither team could get beyond a two-point lead until White came through with a huge block of an attack by Reid to put Orange ahead 19-16, which greased the wheels for the Panthers best sequence of the night. Wimsatt and Mariah Poole followed with kills, and Silcott evened the match with an ace on set point.
Cedar Ridge responded with a 6-3 run to start the third, which led to Orange playing catch up the whole way. Hargett and Serge each had five kills in the frame, while Cecilia Kenan stroked an ace to put the Red Wolves ahead 11-5. Orange’s patented rally from a bad start never materialized as the Red Wolves’ increased its lead in front of a stunned Panthers student section, which eventually rose as one as the urgency of the situation increased with every Cedar Ridge point. Hargett had a kill to put the Cedar Ridge lead at 20-11. Orange chained together three straight points to trim the gap to 23-16, but it was too late. Alverson delivered a flash kill off a dig by Natasha Buchler-Fosado, and Serge scored set point to a loud road from the Cedar Ridge contingent.
Trailing two-sets-to-one, Heverly used the full three minutes between sets talking to her team in the huddle, but Cedar Ridge roared out of the gate with a 6-1 run to start the fourth, ending with consecutive kills by Stoll. Hargett saved her best for last, racking up seven kills in the fourth set. Orange did rally with three straight points, including an ace by White and a kill by Wimatt, to tie the set 9-9. Cedar Ridge responded with four straight points and never trailed again.
Cedar Ridge reeled off five straight points to increase its lead to 19-11, which included a key block from Reid on an attack by Ava Wilkerson, and two more kills from Hargett.
Orange scored six straight points to make a late charge and cut the Red Wolves lead to 22-18 after a block by Wilkerson. Hargett scored a key strike on a swing that caught the back left corner. On match point, Serge’s strike from the far post rebounded off Aubrey Jordan and went into the stands, setting off a huge celebration as the Red Wolves mobbed each other along the left side of the floor.
Orange, who will still be the #2 overall seed in the East Region for the state playoffs, will look ahead to Saturday and a matchup with Swansboro in the opening round.
“I really do believe that losing a match or losing a set can build character,” Heverly said. “If you’re going to lose, this is the one to lose so that we can rebuild and get ready for a nice run in the state playoffs.”
While the odds are against another deep Cedar Ridge state playoff run, the seniors relished in their championship moment on a memorable night on their archrival’s floor.
“We talked about what we needed to do to beat them and we knew that we needed to change our offense,” De Oliveria said. “In the prior two games against Orange, we haven’t been able to execute as well. We knew we had to keep them out of systems, but in order for us to win we knew we had to be offensively aggressive. Tonight, that’s exactly what happened.”