Northwestern played well enough to take Spring Valley in straight sets, 25-11, 25-21 and 25-14 in the first round of the Upper State Playoffs.
The playoff win has been a tough one to get. The Trojans have been to the volleyball playoffs seven straight years. The first six tries resulted in first-round exits. Twice Aiken ousted them; Byrnes, Greenwood, Irmo and Hillcrest knocked them out, also.
This year, the win was quick, decisive and sweet, but the prize is yet to come.
The Trojans, 16-8 and a top seed, will host defending state champion Hillcrest at 6 p.m. Thursday. The Rams, straight-set, first-round winners over T.L. Hanna (25-4, 25-15, 25-16), beat Northwestern in the first round of the playoffs last year.
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"Hillcrest took it to us last year," Northwestern coach Cesar Robles said. The Trojans were beaten soundly in three sets, 25-20, 25-16 and 25-8 a year ago. The Rams went on to defeat Irmo, Rock Hill, Dorman and Wando to capture the state title.
Hillcrest is a No. 3 seed this year.
Tuesday night was about the Trojans taking the first step. A pair of seniors led the attack. Heather Whiteside had 11 kills, and Ashley Young had seven kills and four digs. Junior Alex Angel contributed eight kills.
The Trojans didn't bring their best game. Maybe that will be in the offing Thursday against Hillcrest.
"Not a bad way to head into the playoffs. We know we can play cleaner. We have some things to work on. We'll come into practice tomorrow and go to work," Robles said.
Robles is in his first season as head coach after serving as an assistant for two years. He led the Trojans to the Region 3-AAAA championship with an 8-2 record, and his team is peaking at the right time. The Trojans have won four in a row and six of their last seven.
Robles saw what Hillcrest had last year in the first round against Northwestern. There was definitely a sense Tuesday after the match that he wouldn't mind a little payback this time around.
"Hillcrest is Hillcrest. They are one of the powerhouses in the state. They lost some very good seniors, but they have a good feeder system," Robles said.
Northwestern jumped out to an 11-2 lead in the first set after Whiteside's second kill of the night. The lead grew to 21-6, aided by three digs from Clinton, a pair of nice sets by Hannah Crump and kills from Angel and Young.
In the second set, Spring Valley, a No. 4 seed, hung around longer. Sophomore hitter Kynyata Simmons had two kills and a block to help the Lady Vikings close the gap to 18-16.
Whiteside had a kill and a block to give Northwestern a 22-18 edge, and Katie Kirby's kill ended the set.
Sophomore libero Jillian Clinton had a match-best 14 digs. The position is new for her this year, but she has picked it up quickly.
"Jillian is a very athletic player. She had never played libero before this year. I challenged her and she made the position hers. Very few balls make it past her," Robles said.