Cedar Ridge High School’s volleyball squad headed to Raleigh Saturday for the NCHSAA 3A state championship match against North Iredell looking to bring home the school’s first-ever state title. Mission accomplished, as the Red Wolves won a thrilling four set match against the Raiders to complete a storybook 31-2 season, and bring to Hillsborough the school’s first state title in any sport since the 2013 men’s track team won the 2013 2A state championship.
Playing at storied Reynolds Coliseum on the campus of N.C. State University - the site of countless historic sporting events over the decades - the Red Wolves showed their nerves early on, allowing the Raiders to jump out to an early 5-0 lead in the opening set. But the Red Wolves quickly regrouped, as a pair of back-to-back aces by junior Julie Altieri brought CRHS within 5-3.
Another ace by sophomore Graylinn Serge pulled the Red Wolves within 9-8, and after a kill by fellow sophomore Addie Reid tied the set at 9-9, Cedar Ridge reeled off seven more points in a row to take a commanding 16-9 lead. A pair of kills by junior Melissa Benkowitz, along with kills from fellow juniors Cameron Lloyd and Altieri, helped the Red Wolves score ten unanswered points to take control.
Although North Iredell briefly pulled within 16-12, a kill by Lloyd down the left sideline helped the Red Wolves stay in command, leading 19-13. A pair of unforced errors by North Iredell push the Red Wolves lead to 21-14, and a subsequent kill by Cameron Lanier gave CRHS a 22-15 cushion.
It was important that Cedar Ridge had such a dramatic run, as North Iredell reeled off five straight points to pull within 22-20, and force a time out from Red Wolves head coach Fiona Cunningham. Cunningham settled the CRHS players down, and they went out and took the opening set, with Reed finishing things off with a return shot that the Raiders couldn’t return. The 25-20 win marked the 31st straight set victory for the Red Wolves.
The two squads played neck-and-neck for most of the second set, taking a 10-10 tie into the 21st point. A block by Lanier and a shot into the net by North Iredell gave Cedar Ridge a 13-10 lead and forced a North Iredell timeout. From there, North Iredell got the next three points to tie the set up again, 13-13, before Cedar Ridge went back out in front. An ace by Lanier made the count 15-13, and Reid found a soft spot in the Raiders defense to make the score 16-14. The Red Wolves had a golden opportunity to take a 2-0 lead, but a pair of kill attempts by Lloyd went long. Another Cedar Ridge shot hit the antenna on the net, and North Iredell blocked a CRHS kill attempt to take a 23-18 lead.
After another Cedar Ridge timeout, Lloyd got a kill to get the Red Wolves the serve back trailing 23-19. But that’s as close as the Red Wolves would get, as the Raiders got a return shot that hit the line for set point, and a kill gave North Iredell a 25-19 win to tie the match at one set apiece.
The third set would prove to be the climactic set of the match, as the two schools fought their hearts out to seize the momentum. There were a remarkable 11 ties, as the teams went down the stretch tied at 22-22. North Iredell led briefly 5-2 in the opening, but a spike by Lloyd and two kills by Lanier tied things up the first time. Two more kills by Lloyd briefly gave the Red Wolves a 13-11 lead, but the Raiders came back to tie. A 5-1 run gave North Iredell a 19-17 lead, but a kill by Reid and an illegal hit by the Raiders made the count 19-19. CRHS trailed 22-20 and were facing the distinct possibility of going down two sets to one, but a North Iredell serve out of bounds and a huge block by Lanier led to a Raiders timeout with the score knotted at 22-22.
In perhaps the most important sequence of the entire match, Altieri set up Lanier for what was her ninth kill at that point, giving CRHS an all-important 23-22 lead and the serve. With Grace Young serving, North Iredell fired a return shot into the net, giving the Red Wolves match point at 24-22. The Red Wolves finished off a rally of five consecutive points to close out the third set with a return shot that the Raiders couldn’t get back over the net. The 25-22 win gave the Red Wolves the momentum heading into the fourth set.
CRHS seized the initiative in the fourth set, jumping out to an early 6-2 lead to force a North Iredell timeout. From there, Benkowitz came through with a kill for an 8-4 Red Wolves advantage, and Reid came through with a blocked shot that landed on the North Iredell side of the court.
With the Red Wolves leading 12-6, Grace Young came through with arguably the most brilliant point of the entire match, as she lunged to fire a shot beyond the Raiders front line and in on the left-hand side. Young’s unlikely diving kill gave CRHS a 13-7 lead. From there, Cedar Ridge rallied four more unanswered points, with Altieri dumping a shot across the net for a point, and Lloyd crushing back-to-back kills that North Iredell couldn’t return. Another kill attempt by Lloyd was nailed into the net by the Raiders, and Cedar Ridge had a commanding 17-8 advantage.
With the state title in their sights, the Red Wolves continued leaning on the Raiders, as Lanier collected her fifth blocked shot for a 20-10 lead, and Lloyd fired a serve that clipped the top of the net and fell on the Raiders side for an ace. Although North Iredell continued to fight and scored the next three points, a Lanier kill on a long volley back-and-forth made the score 23-13.
Just two points from victory, Benkowitz came through with a kill to give Cedar Ridge match point, leading 24-14. The Raiders managed to hold off the Red Wolves twice, pulling within 24-16, but Lloyd sealed Cedar Ridge’s title with a fitting powerful kill that led to a spirited celebration on the Red Wolves side of the court. The CRHS players raced out to the middle of the court and embraced in an exuberant pile.
North Iredell finished the season 26-2. The Raiders were 13-1 in the Western Foothills 3A where they won the league title. The Raiders won the program’s fifth regional title, advancing to the state championship for the fifth time in program history.
Lloyd was named Most Valuable Player after converting 14 kills and 12 digs. The victory was Cedar Ridge’s first in a state championship volleyball match in three appearances, as the Red Wolves had come up short in their previous two state finals opportunities. It was the first state championship match appearance for Cedar Ridge in any sport since 2007, when the Red Wolves lacrosse program fell in to the 2017 state championship match to Charlotte’s Weddington High School.