ROCKINGHAM — It will be easy for spectators to assume that someone forgot to tell the volleyball players from Rockingham Middle and Hamlet Middle that Thursday’s meeting was a pre-season scrimmage that did not count.
The two squads were brought together as part of the new Middle School Jamboree held at Richmond Senior High School with both teams seeing their first action of the 2023 fall season. The rivals held nothing back, battling it out as if it were the conference title match.
The result, a back-and forth, two-hour slugfest, ended in a five-set victory for the Lady Rockets.
The Lady Red Rams were in control early. As the two teams worked out the kinks in the first set, a series of net violations and serving errors on both sides resulted in an early 5-4 Hamlet advantage. Lexi Smith took over serving duties for the Lady Red Rams putting five straight in play that the Lady Rockets failed to return.
A Lady Red Ram miscue gave a point back to Rockingham, but three consecutive aces by Hamlet libero Grace Dunn and a kill by Mackenzie Quick put the red-clad squad ahead 14-5 leading to a Rockingham time out.
Strong serves continued for the Lady Red Rams with Lizzie Lunceford, Kaleigh Bowden and Quick all adding aces down the stretch to help Hamlet roll to a 25-13 set-one victory.
Rockingham head coach Wandesha Jackson seemed to settle her troops in set two. A kill by Erin Drumwright and aces by Ava Clark and Kendall Carter contributed to a 5-1 run to start things off for the Lady Rockets. Hamlet answered with a 6-1 run aided by a pair of aces from Kaydence Cooke.
From there, the two teams traded points with neither taking more than a two-point advantage until the score was 17-all. Rockingham used a Hamlet error, a Braylyn Callahan kill and another Drumwright ace to move ahead by three points forcing Hamlet head coach Lauren Brewer to take a time out.
After the break, Rockingham extended its run to six points pushing its lead to 23-17. Another strong serving performance by Cooke would pull the Lady Red Rams back to within two at 24-22, but Hamlet would mishandle the ball on the next rally resulting in a 25-22 Rockingham victory.
The third set was another back-and forth affair with the opening moments seeing five ties and three lead changes. When Rockingham’s Jordyn Chappell entered the serving area, her team trailed 8-7. Chappell slapped across three consecutive line-drive serves that Hamlet could not put into play putting the Lady Rockets back on top by two.
Moments later, Rockingham won four consecutive rallies giving the Lady Rockets a five-point advantage at 14-9 and forcing a Hamlet time out. After the break, a hit out of bounds gave the serve back to the Lady Red Rams. Dunn answered Chappell with a trio of aces and a kill. Cooke also added a kill and the Lady Red Rams reclaimed the lead at 15-14.
From there, Rockingham’s Kendall Carter took over. The seventh grader contributed two aces, two digs and a kill to a 10-2 run to close out the second set. The 25-16 set win moved the Lady Rockets to 2-1 in the series.
Hamlet got off to a quick lead in set four. After her team fell behind 2-1, Bowden contributed three aces to a 5-0 run to put the Lady Red Rams up by four. A kill by Rockingham’s Laney Taylor and a trio of Hamlet errors evened out the set at 7-7.
Later, with the set tied at 17-all, Hamlet went on a 4-0 run capped by a Sky Christian kill. Smith added three kills down the stretch to help keep Hamlet’s lead intact resulting in a 25-21 set four victory for the Lady Red Rams knotting the series at 2-2 and forcing a fifth set to break the tie.
After the Lady Rockets took a 5-2 lead aided by some stellar serving by Drumwright, Hamlet quickly turned the tables scoring six straight with Bowden in the serving area. Incredibly, six of the next eight rallies saw the ball pass over the net 8 or more times with one rally changing hands 14 times between the serve and a lifting foul called against Rockingham.
However, the exciting series was a wash as Rockingham was still facing a three-point deficit at 9-6. Enter Alley Crouch. Crouch, who had a big day defensively for the Lady Rockets, had two diving digs to keep rallies alive leading to back-to-back Rockingham points.
Moments later, with her team now only down by one at 10-9, Crouch took over serving duties. The seventh grader put six straight in play earning two aces and three assists en route to a come-from-behind 15-10 set five win to give the Lady Rockets a 3-2 victory.
Conference play begins on Monday, Sept. 18, with Rockingham traveling to Carver Middle in Laurel Hill (4:15 p.m.) and Hamlet playing host to Spring Hill (4:00 p.m.)