At a time when excitement should have been at an all-time high, there was nothing but silence Saturday inside the Woodland High gymnasium.
During warmups for the championship game of the Bartow County tournament, Cartersville coach Dutch Cothran suffered a medical episode. So with their leader nowhere in sight, the Canes dug deep and rallied together for a 25-13, 25-23 win over Woodland.
"I'm very impressed with them," Cartersville's other coach, Kady Storey, said. "They came out with a lot of energy, and they were just ready to win. They did very well."
Cartersville, which beat Woodland 25-22, 25-21 in the first round of the double elimination tournament, scored 13 of the first 14 points in the opening set.
Anna Grace Brock set the tone with an ace to begin the match. Seniors Lauren Wenzell and Halle Matthews racked up kills, and a nice run of service by Mason Cline helped give the Canes a healthy advantage before the Wildcats could respond.
"Honestly, we didn't know what to expect, because some teams if something happens to their coach, they might be out of it mentally," Woodland head coach David Condon said. "That wasn't the case with them. That's a tribute to them, for sure. If anything were to happen to me, I'm not sure how my team would work. You never know how it's going to happen.
"We were pretty sure they were going to play harder and play better than they did the first match, and they did."
To the Wildcats' credit, they fought back. After splitting the final 24 points of the first set, Woodland hung around throughout the entirety of the second.
Behind the solid play of Matthews and Wenzell, Cartersville's lead grew to 14-8. Led by standout junior Sydney Molinaro, Woodland started to chip away. Molinaro had a pair of aces to help claw the Wildcats within a point at 17-16.
That's when a former Wildcat came up big for the Canes. Junior Macey Vaughn, who transferred to Cartersville after spending her sophomore season at Woodland, had a key kill to keep the Canes in the lead.
Wenzell, who had 10 kills in the match, followed with three devastating spikes in a four-point span. It forced Woodland's final timeout, and the Wildcats came back onto the court inspired, fighting back to tie the match at 23-all.
That's when Storey called the only timeout she had used all match. If nothing else, it threw off Woodland's rhythm. The Wildcats' next serve went into the net, and Brock, who hadn't had her best game, came through when it mattered most with a deadly bullseye to the back-right corner to set off celebrations for the Canes' 15th consecutive county crown.
"I'm very proud," Wenzell said. "With the rut we've been in, I hoped we could get out of it today, and we definitely pulled through. I had a little bit of doubt, but we stepped up. Our heads got clear, and that's what had been holding us back from being the best that we could."
Despite the loss, Condon was pleased with his team's showing on Saturday. Following the narrow loss to Cartersville to begin the day, Woodland defeated Adairsville (25-22, 25-17) and rallied to beat Cass (20-25, 25-22, 15-8).
"It's always frustrating to lose at the end, when you feel like you're playing neck-and-neck with them," Condon said. "Sometimes the breaks go your way, sometimes they don't. I was really pleased with them overall."
Molinaro finished the four consecutive matches with 31 kills, 31 assists, 19 digs and nine aces. Caroline Gore also had an outstanding tournament. The senior had 15 kills, 14 digs and three aces over the final three matches.
Both were named to the all-tournament team. Joining the Woodland duo were Wenzell, Vaughn and Brock, as well as Cass' Keegan Krause and Adairsville's Aaliyah Applin.
In the day's other matches, Cass beat Adairsville 25-17, 25-21 in the first round before falling to Cartersville in three sets to drop into the losers' bracket. The Colonels ultimately placed third, while the Tigers finished fourth. Adairsville, though, will be encouraged by having reached the final of the JV tournament before falling to Cartersville by scores of 25-22 and 25-23.
As for the varsity tournament runner-up, Woodland will quickly turn its focus towards the rest of the season, with plenty still on the line for a team that has shown it can compete with almost anybody.
"I know county was a goal of ours we set at the beginning of the year, but it's not our only goal," Condon said. "... Getting in position and having effort is half the battle, and I felt like that's what we did. As long as we can continue to build upon that, it's encouraging for us to try to make the state tournament and things like that we want to do goal-wise for the rest of the season."
Cartersville, meanwhile, will hope Saturday serves as a turning point. The Canes (14-9) had been a little inconsistent in recent weeks, and that was the case again through its first two matches Saturday.
Wenzell believes the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the championship match refocused the team and led to the improved performance.
"At the beginning, we were struggling with our energy," she said. "Honestly, it didn't click until the last game, when our coach got hurt. I think that's what pushed us to go harder."
Even though Cartersville wasn't able to sustain its initial wave of momentum to open the match, the Canes made the plays down the stretch that championship-winning teams do — regardless of the circumstances.
"I think their energy and passion at the end," Storey said of what allowed Cartersville to pull out the second set. "Winning the county tournament, I think, is what drove them and doing it for coach Dutch."
"We wanted to play for him," she said of Cothran, "so when he came back, he would come back to a trophy."