PUCKETT – It should come as no surprise that Sacred Heart’s outcome in the South State championship on Tuesday was no different from most of their season results – a sweep for the Crusaders.
The Sacred Heart volleyball team won 25-17, 25-21, 25-21, to beat Puckett, the reigning 2A South State champions, 3-0, and advance to the school’s first-ever state championship match.
The 24-3 Crusaders not only swept their 17th team of the season but have yet to give up a set in the playoffs as they will move on to face Belmont (32-4) on Saturday at Ridgeland High School.
“(It’s the) most wins ever,” Sacred Heart coach Kerry Geroux said. “Going to the state championship, we’ve never done that before in volleyball. (Last year) we made it South State and lost to Resurrection. We just took that one extra step.”
The moment was pure jubilation for junior hitter Ameze Ekunwe, who recorded a team-leading eight kills.
“I can’t describe it,” Ekunwe said. “I’m so excited. I don’t have words for it. “Last season, they got a small taste of the victory. I was just so ready to give them the big pie.
“I’m proud. Sacred Heart has never been to state before in volleyball. I’m beyond proud of my team, and I’m so excited for what’s to come.”
Senior Sarah Gallardo opened the set with three straight aces for Sacred Heart, which gave the Crusaders a small cushion. Puckett managed to pull within one point at 15-14, but Sacred Heart closed the set with a 10-3 run to cruise to a 25-17 victory.
“We talked about how we needed to make everything easy,” said Gallardo, who entered the game with a team-leading 156 digs. “If we make an easy pass, an easy set, an easy kill, then it’s going to keep rallying them and get in their head.
“It’s kind of overwhelming and an amazing feeling. It’s something we’ve never done before. We are saying a statement. We are saying Sacred Heart is there. We are ready to play anyone.”
Again, Sacred Heart jumped out to a quick 7-2 lead. Errors, which plagued the Lady Wolves throughout the match, helped Sacred Heart jump to an 18-11 lead. However, Puckett (21-5) responded with a 9-2 run to help tie the set 21-21. Again, the Crusaders closed the set with a 4-0 run to hold on to a 25-21 win. Ekunwe recorded four of her kills in the set.
“She was amazing,” Gallardo said. “She can put balls away. She does tips. She gets us rallied up and inspires everyone else.”
Heading into the final set, the Lady Wolves stepped up their game as they tried to avoid the sweep as Puckett jumped out to a 9-7 lead. However, hitting errors by the Lady Wolves helped Sacred Heart go on a 6-0 run to take a 17-11 lead. Again Puckett did not fade away and answered with a 9-2 run to take a 20-19 lead.
“I told them to just relax,” Geroux said. “We were giving them some points. (So I told them) just relax and try to play the game. Try to anticipate everything, and they kind of did.”
Surely enough, the momentum shift did not faze the Crusaders as they closed with a 5-1 run and sealed the match with a 25-21 win. In total, the third set saw eight tie and four lead changes.
“(Puckett) made a lot of mistakes, and that was surprising to me,” Geroux said. “We’d get a good volley, and then they would hit it out. We did too a little, but they did it more than I thought. I thought that was where the game was going to go. We played a little better and made less mistakes.”
Also turning in critical performances were Elizabeth Casey, who racked up seven kills and six blocks, and Julia Farris, who recorded six kills.
“We knew it was going to be a great match,” Geroux said. “They are a great team. It could have been 3-0 or 3-2. We knew it was going to be close. We just played a little better and had less mistakes. It was a great match. I’m speechless.”
The Crusaders will play for the Class 2A title at noon.