When Cartersville cruised to another Bartow County Volleyball Championships, Canes head coach Dutch Cothran immediately turned his focus to Tuesday's Region 5-AAAA matches with Chapel Hill and Troup County.
It wasn't that Cothran didn't enjoy capturing the title. He just knew his team needed to refocus ahead of arguably its biggest match of the season.
Troup, in particular, was set to be a worthy challenger to Cartersville's recent dominance in the region, and Cothran knew his team has had trouble stringing together good performances.
That trend ended, at least for the time being, Tuesday as the Canes eased past the Panthers with a 25-16, 25-8 win and pulled out a much-more-difficult 25-17, 25-23 victory over the Tigers to grab control in the race for the region's No. 1 seed.
Cartersville (13-11, 4-0) started off slowly in the first set against Chapel Hill. The Panthers led early and used a 4-0 run to pull within 16-15. That's when the Canes turned things around, rattling off nine of the final 10 points to avoid dropping the set.
Grace Hunter had three aces in the set, and the senior opened the second set with two more to set the tone. With Chapel Hill hanging around at 11-5, Nedu Evans took over. In a span of seven points, the high-flying outside hitter had two kills and three aces. Her fifth kill of the set and eighth of the match ended things in short order.
Following Troup's two-set victory over Chapel Hill, the Tigers and Canes showed some signs of fatigue in the cap to the tri-match. Poor serving by both sides in the first set kept things tight throughout with few sustained runs.
"Some of those missed serves were very well acceptable," Cothran said of his team. "A couple of them, I thought we weren't being aggressive enough and still hit them out. Those bothered me, but it wasn't that big of a deal. I think the way we overcame that was good ball control and keeping the ball away from their best hitter."
Hunter, who totaled 27 assists, seven aces and five kills on the night, provided the spark Cartersville needed to pull away in the first set. On consecutive points, Hunter assisted a kill by Anna Grace Brock, provided a kill of her own and added back-to-back aces.
It's become apparent in recent weeks that Hunter is a metronome of sorts for the Canes. When she's ticking at a pace her teammates match, Cartersville is hard to beat. When she's a beat or two behind, the Canes' inconsistencies start to show up.
"With her it's more of an energy thing," Cothran said of his setter. "When she plays with that kind of energy and that kind of focus, she's that much better. Here recently, she's had some colleges getting in touch with her, and she's supposed to go for a couple visits here pretty soon. That's kind of put a little extra fuel in the tank and pushed her a little harder to make sure she's stepping her game up getting ready for that next level. Having hitters like Nedu and Rebekah [Stevens], we've got some college-level hitters, so she's getting to work with some really good hitters, as well."
Following the Hunter-inspired spurt, the Canes held a five- to-six-point lead most of the remainder of the set before scoring the final four points.
The evenly matched teams again went back and forth to begin the second set. While the serving was still spotty, Cartersville passed exquisitely with Brock and Anna Mathis getting the ball to Hunter in great spots to set up Evans, in particular, for devastating kills.
Evans had four kills in a six-point span to really get going early in the set. The Cartersville assassin later sent three spikes in a four-point sequence crashing to the floor.
To its credit, Troup bounced back. The Tigers took a timeout down 17-11 and just minutes later held a 22-19 lead with a decisive third set within reach.
"I just think it was a relaxed point, right there," Cothran said of the 5-0 run that put Cartersville on the brink. "Those are the kind of things you can't have, especially when you're possibly playing for the region. I think that was kind of an emotional letdown by them."
Unlike earlier in the year, the Canes found a way to stop the bleeding and turn the set around. Another huge kill by Evans served as a proper tourniquet, and her spike off an assist from Stevens knotted the score at 23-23.
Brock, an extremely promising freshman with a solid all-around game, followed with an ace, and a block by London Shaw, which is exactly how the match started, proved to be the winning point.
The victory not only puts Cartersville in the driver's seat in regards to the top spot in the region but also keeps the momentum from Saturday's tournament triumph rolling forward.
And Cothran knows his team will need every bit of it to avenge an early season loss to Northwest Whitfield in a tri-match with the Bruins and Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe on Thursday.
"I'm feeling better, but I think we have a really good barometer coming up Thursday to see what we're made of," Cothran said. "Northwest Whitfield beat us here. We were playing a different system, so I think it will be a little bit different. I feel like we've got some people in better positions. They've got a great team, got a great coach. ... That will be a really good test to see what we're made of."