In the end, it was all about toes and heels.
At the end of a four-set battle that was tied at 2, the volleyball teams from Bloomington North and South found themselves on the opposite ends of their feet and it made all the difference. It helped the Panthers power through the tiebreaker and claim a 19-25, 25-19, 23-25, 25-22, 15-5 Conference Indiana win at North Tuesday.
South (5-10, 2-2), coming off a four-game losing skid, could easily have been disheartened with the way the third set ended, losing a 14-10 lead and battling through ties at 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 before North scored the last two points.
But the Panthers took charge of Set 4 and managed to hang on, then got off to a quick start in the fifth and scored the last eight points.
"It did not look good," South senior middle Raine Rolen said. "But we talked in the middle and we were pulling ourselves together and we were like, 'Guys, this is North this is a big game and we're going to pull it out and work together.'
"And we won it somehow. I don't know how we did that but we really worked hard."
Rolen, Cadence Ast and Riley Walker in particular seemed to step up their game and give South the emotional and physical spark it badly needed. Rolen and Ast each had 12 kills, while Walker had 18 digs, including several pancake saves, and Ast 14 and Rolan fired three aces. Caitlin Heim anchored a strong block at the net.
"You don't want to make excuses, but we have yet to be full healthy," South coach Melissa Smith said. "Raine's been sick. Seems like somebody is always injured. So this is the first time we've all been back together.
"You kind of expect it's going to take a game. I think it took a little longer than we expected. But I told them afterwards, the fortitude that it took to not lay down after what happened those first two sets, really showed a ton of integrity. And they also came together as a team."
North (7-5, 1-3) is a sophomore dominated team this year, but had to feel like it let its rival get away after stunning South in the third.
"We just focus on our side of the court, no matter who is on the other side," North assistant Shea Barrow said. "We want to make sure we're sticking to our principles and doing the things that we practice. We want to work on staying with it and pushing through and not take it to five sets, but finish."
It was South's sixth straight win in the series and 12th out of the last 13 meeting. It was the third five-setter since 2012, with North winning the last one in 2017.
"It was a different kind of excitement," said Smith, a former player and assistant at North. "I still love this gym. It's still fun to be here. The crowd energy I told the girls, 'You guys are so lucky to get to play in this kind of environment, really relish it. I'm jealous because I don't get to play any more. There's nothing like it."
Hot start for North
No one was hitting accurately early on as each team worked the nerves out. The Cougars fell behind 11-7, then found their targets, going on a 15-4 tear to claim the first set.
North kept it up in the second, leading 9-3 after an ace by Morgan Barrow. It was still 16-10 when South woke up and North went to sleep. A 12-1 run put the Panthers on top, 22-17, and they were able to tie the match.
"We have a young team right now, a lot of sophomores," Shea Barrow said. "So just kind of developing those players and working on consistency because it is a lot different moving to varsity as a sophomore."
Momentum was at best fickle much of the night.
"Since we're so young, we have our ups and downs," North libero Avery Freeman said. "We talked in the locker room how when you win, it kind of masks up certain problems that you have within your team. But taking the loss, it focuses on those problems, where we can get better."
Morgan Barrow with the emphatic kill to give North a 25-23 in critical Set 3. Cougars up 2-1 pic.twitter.com/DnV0IKjd1t
— Jim Gordillo (@JimGordillo) September 14, 2022
Turning point for South
With South on its heels early, it had to shore up its passing game, with North serving tough all night long.
The Panthers jumped up early in Set 4, going up 17-9, but North started chipping away, getting to 21-18, then with a Freeman ace down to 23-22. But an attack into the net by North and a kill by Rolen kept South alive.
"Credit North, they've got some incredible servers," Smith said. "But (we) didn't fold. You saw those last two games, once we pass and serve, watch out."
In the fifth, Ast took over serving at 8-5, fired an ace that seemed to say it was over and four errors by North echoed the sentiment. South had learned its lesson in a five-set loss to Terre Haute North on Aug. 23.
"I was super excited and nervous at the same time," Rolen said. "Because usually when we've played five sets, we haven't won. But I think we were all excited to have the chance after the (fourth) set because we had the momentum. We had good serves and it put them on their heels."
"To me, we just played timid," Freeman said. "We made some mistakes that we shouldn't have."
6 kills, an ace and 2 blocks for Panthers in winning surge as North went flat.
— Jim Gordillo (@JimGordillo) September 14, 2022
Mix and match
Both North and South are still in the testing phase this season as they move on.
For South, its seniors are working with their third head coach in three years and with a tough schedule. The Panthers are starting to find the rotations that work best and create matchups that work in their favor. Having versatile athletes helps a ton.
"You've got incredible athletes like Caitlin, who can jump to the ceiling and play anywhere," Smith said. "To have kids you can trust to put in different spots and they're building confidence knowing they can do that."
Middle Leah Brown led North with 12 kills, six block assists and two solos, while Kenli Sullivan had 10 kills off the left side and Mia Robbennolt eight kills to go with four block assists and two solos. Freeman had 31 digs, three kills off the back row and four aces and Morgan Barrow got to 12 digs.
They also all had their opportunities to play through it as all six bench players seeing time on the floor, several in key situations in the final two sets.
"Anyone on our bench is able to hop in and do their job," Barrow said. "And that's because we trust the process. And in practice, they're all participating and learning and getting better, so we're able to do that. We're able to pull people off the bench and put them in and know they are going to do their job."
Contact Jim Gordillo at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @JimGordillo.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Bloomington volleyball battle between North and South takes 5