The early season tournament’s official title is the Garner Showcase, but the 12-team event’s marquee match was worthy of “Tournament of Champions” billing on Saturday night at the Trojans’ gym.
Green Hope and North Raleigh Christian Academy — two schools from opposite ends of the Wake County yet sharing status with championship banners and college scholarship athletes — arrived with a combined seven state titles and seven committed athletes.
Green Hope, winners of three consecutive N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A titles, and NCRA, with four consecutive N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association crowns, didn’t disappoint the large crowd that turned out.
The Falcons from Cary won the best-of-5 match 21-25, 25-15, 17-25, 26-24, 15-13. It was a back-and-forth marathon lasting 2 hours, 10-minutes.
“That was the highest level of high school volleyball you’ll see,” Green Hope senior setter Sydney Dowler said. “Both teams played amazing. I feel blessed to have been a part of the match. There is not a place I’d rather have been on a Saturday night.”
Dowler is a three-time state finals MVP committed to Maryland. She finished 47 assists in addition to crucial serves and points throughout the night. With NCRA leading 12-9 in the decisive fifth game, she scored on a misdirection kill and followed with two straight serves that resulted in Green Hope tying the match, 12-12.
The scored was still deadlocked at 13-13 when Green Hope’s Alexis Engelbrecht, a 6-2 senior committed to Iowa State, scored on back-to-back plays with an off-speed kill and block to end the match.
Grace Patrick, a 5-11 senior, led the Falcons with 15 kills. Annie Elvin added 14 and Engelbrecht finished with 12. Two other Green Hope players committed to colleges are 6-1 senior Priscilla Jones to ECU and 6-2 junior Sophia Kruczko to Nova Southeastern in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
It was the second year in a row Green Hope beat NCRA in the Garner tournament in five games. The teams have met five times in the past three seasons in regular-season tournaments, with Green Hope now on a three-game winning streak.
“We’re trying to grow the sport with exposure here for our kids at Garner and throughout the area,” said Garner coach Jeff Boyette of scheduling the marquee matchup to finish the all-day event. “This is a chance for girls to see the best of the best.”
In addition to the high-level of play, the beauty of the matches is they both sides are willing to play.
“It’s great competition and helps us get ready for states,” NCRA coach Chris Murray said. “We don’t want to play easy games for our record. We want to play the best.”
NCRA matches Green Hope’s college lineup with its own talent. Senior setter Skylar Buckley is committed to Mississippi State, senior libero and defensive specialist Taylor Thomason to Coastal Carolina and junior Arica Davis (6-4) to Ohio State.
And that’s not counting underclassmen being recruited. NCRA sophomore Riley Buckley (6-0), who plays bigger and stronger than she looks, was last season’s Prepvolleyball.com’s national Freshman of the Year
Adding to the competition is the players are familiar with each other through club volleyball seasons.
“I wouldn’t say it’s for bragging rights,” Skylar Buckley said. “I’d say it’s a challenge.”
Another reason for the strong play this time of year is both teams have veteran lineups. Green Hope returned all six starters, and NCRA has five in addition to adding Davis as a transfer.
“That was state championship volleyball,” Boyette said.