On the doorstep of completing their season-long goals, both North Myrtle Beach and Pickens’ volleyball teams are prepared for an epic showdown, as the two teams will battle on Saturday for the Class 4A volleyball state championship.
The Chiefs (23-5) earned their way to state by knocking off rival Myrtle Beach 3-0 on Tuesday to win the Lower State crown, while Pickens (29-1) dispatched Daniel 3-0 in the Upper State finals. Combined, the teams won 18 sets in the bracket, with the lone set loss coming by North Myrtle Beach against Aiken.
Each team dominated its region, going undefeated against their rivals and neighbors.
Now, with just one game left in the volleyball season, the coaches are looking for an edge to bring home a state championship to cap off a dream season.
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“Playing loose is the key for us,” said North Myrtle Beach coach Alex Sing. “This team has been playing together for a while, some of them have been starting on varsity since their freshman year. They know how to play together and what we do well, they just can’t let the moment get to them and tighten up.”
For Pickens, the moment is familiar, as they played for state against Myrtle Beach last year, falling in the match. For coach Rikki Owens and the Blue Flames, this year has been about redemption and mental preparedness, rather than the on-court skills.
“We have focused so much on our mental game this year, because last year’s loss (at state) we fell apart mentally,” she said. “The girls have kept journals and we’ve read ‘The Confident Athlete’ as a team to ensure that they are as ready as they can be mentally.”
The on-court results of the mental preparation have been devastating, as Pickens ran through the Upper State bracket with no issues. Owens’ team is as tight-knit of a squad as she’s ever seen and they love to play together.
“They are the closest group I’ve ever been around, they absolutely love playing together,” Owens said. “They are actually sad about the season ending, even though they’re playing for state. They don’t want to turn off the lights in the gym and have to move on past this season. That’s how much they love each other.”
With success on the floor, the Blue Flames have had less hardships to worry about than in years past. That success is due, in large part, to the incredible athletes in the middle of the Pickens attack.
“We have a set of twin towers in the middle of, one 6-foot-4 and another 6 foot with a huge vertical. We also have an extremely talented setter who gets them the ball where they want it,” Owens said. “We definitely go to them for a lot of points. In volleyball, you win matches by getting kills and these girls have been able to do that through triple-teams and over blocks all season. We aren’t going to change our game at this point of the season, we’re going to do what we do best.”
On the North Myrtle Beach side, the Chiefs are ready for their shot at a trophy, after falling in Lower State to Myrtle Beach last season and seeing their rivals hoist a championship.
“We have been building toward this for a few years,” Sing said. “Last season, we beat both teams that played for state (Myrtle Beach and Pickens) and we were disappointed in the end. This season, we’ve focused on our side of the net and have had success with that. This team is hungry to compete to be the best in the state.”
While focusing on their own game, the Chiefs are also aware of what Pickens does well.
“Having played them in a tournament last year, we’re at least familiar with what their style is on the court,” Sing said. “Unless something changes, we know they’ll play to their strengths in the middle of the court and we’ll have to be ready to dig it out. They’ve got some motivation, having made it to state last year and lost, so we have to be ready for a talented, hungry team.”
Not having faced each other in their current form, both coaches are relying on scouting reports to gauge their opponent. At Pickens, there will be no film study – they’ll rely on instinct and skill.
“I haven’t gotten any film or a real scouting report, that’s not how we’ve done it this season,” Owens said. “I’ve reached out to a couple of coaching friends who have played North Myrtle Beach and have tried to get a feel for what they do, but my players won’t watch any tape. We did that last year and I found that we don’t do well with it. I want them reacting and using their instincts, rather than trying to relate to what’s been done on film.”
Both coaches are expecting a tough contest that will be back-and-forth. Owens has faith that her players will perform with their backs against the wall, while Sing has seen his team respond to pressure all year.
“Throughout this season and even in the playoffs, we’ve done well when we have to have it,” he said. “Even (against Myrtle Beach in the Lower State final) we dug down deep and found success. Sure, playing with a cushion is less stressful for us coaches, but this deep into the season, you’ve got to expect tight scores. We feel like we’re ready for anything we face.”
When he addresses his players on Saturday, Sing will tell them how fortunate they are to be in the position to play for a championship, how proud he is of their work so far, but he will challenge them to finish the task.
“They’ve got to enjoy the moment, most teams aren’t playing volleyball right now,” he said. “This is a special time to be together with your team. But, they also need to know that we want to keep that trophy on the Grand Strand. That’s the goal for them on Saturday.”
North Myrtle Beach and Pickens will battle for the Class 4A volleyball state championship on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at While Knoll High School in Lexington.