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The masked spikers: Fike sweeps Ladybirds in Big East, season opener

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WILSON — The Fike High varsity volleyball team received word a week ago that this unorthodox 2020 North Carolina High School Athletic Association season would be conducted with the use of on-court face coverings.

But before the Lady Golden Demons could get used to the extra fashion accessory, Wilson County’s public schools were closed Thursday, giving them no chance to acclimate prior to Monday’s season opener against 3-A Big East Conference rival Southern Nash.

Fike started slow at the outset, sputtering to an 8-8 tie in the opening set. But the Lady Demons began to find additional holes in the Ladybirds defense behind the hitting of junior Jada Lamm and senior Payton Lentz, giving first-year head coach Jeff Nelson his first win following a 25-17, 25-15, 25-9 decision.

The limited observers in attendance were greeted by a temperature check and a compulsory form signing, indicating they’d neither been exposed to nor contracted the coronavirus.

“I was a little nervous how we would react with the masks,” Nelson said. “And also not playing for four or five days. I thought the first game, we made some little mistakes and stuff that we can work on, but I thought that we improved as we went on, lessening the mistakes.”

Fike separated from an 8-8 tie in the opening set behind the serving of senior setter Kendall Harris. The Lady Demons went on a 8-1 run to seize a lead that lasted for the remainder of the set. Freshman Mallory Jenkins, Lamm and junior Kendra Dumong were a presence up front for Fike, while Lentz took hold on a more regular basis entering the second set.

“We could have had more communication,” Lentz said. “But we didn’t have as many mistakes as we thought we would for our first game. We did good; we just need to work on talking.”

The Lady Demons didn’t trail in the second set, claiming the first four points and turning it into a nine-point cushion at 18-9. From 23-15, a Lamm kill and a block from Jenkins put Fike up by two sets and put the match on a path to a swift end in the third.

Senior libero Lindsey Curlings, who had six of Fike’s 18 digs, put her serving on display in the third set. She turned a 12-7 margin into an 18-7 advantage and was key in not allowing Southern Nash to grab any sustained momentum with four aces. Dumong had four blocks at the net for the Lady Demons.

Lentz and junior Katyria Cruz had four digs each, mask and all.

“It’s really hot and it’s a lot harder,” Lentz said of playing with the mask. “It’s a lot harder to play with it and harder to breathe. It’s just different. I didn’t think I would have to get as used to wearing a mask, but it’s definitely going to be something you have to get used to.”

Senior Alissa Bailey had eight digs and eight assists to pace the Ladybirds, with Hannah Carpenter adding activity against Fike’s onslaught of hitters with eight digs. Kierstin Cooper, a senior, paced the Southern Nash offense with four blocks.

“We had a little first-game jitters,” Southern Nash head coach Melanie Hicks said. “I think we just have to rely on each other a little bit more and trust each other a little bit more instead of watching the ball go everywhere. Once (Fike) had the ball rolling, they just stayed on it for a little bit more and it took us longer to get things going.”

Hicks cited the masks in making it difficult to communicate instructions from the sideline.

“It’s awful,” Hicks said. “It’s hot. I don’t feel like they can hear what I’m saying, and they’re asking me questions on the court and I can’t understand what they’re saying. It makes it a little more difficult, but I think we can work through it.”

For Nelson, the inability to find a primary weapon against the Ladybirds isn’t a source of complaint.

“I don’t think this year’s team, you’re going to look at it and say we’re a one-hitter team,” he said. “I think we have a bunch of girls who can get kills.”