FAYETTEVILLE - Kate Ackerman will start tinting her hair soon, as she doesn’t care who knows.
Coach of the Chapel Hill Area Volleyball Club’s Under-16 team, Ackerman had promised her teenage players that, should they win a tournament, she would dye her hair purple.
That didn’t seem too rash at the time. She would only be coaching the players for a year, passing them on to a new team and a new coach after they turned 17 years old. And CHAVC’s U16 Thrill had never done better than third in a tournament.
Last weekend in Fayetteville’s new Freedom Sportsplex, CHAVC Thrill won the USA Volleyball Carolina Regional Volleyball Gold Championship. Along the way, CHAVC beat the state’s top-seeded team twice.
"Now the only thing left to do is to make good on the bet," Ackerman said.
The Carolina Regional in Fayetteville comprised 16 teams divided into four pools, including the IC Stars, North Carolina’s top-ranked team in the U16 Gold division, plus No. 9 Jammers 2 and No. 15 NC Elite Cardinal.
IC Stars, 16-2 this season, had beaten CHAVC Thrill more than once, including an emotionally draining 16-14 third-set decision in the semifinals of a previous tournament, Thrill outside hitter Natalie Ragazzo noted. "They’re one of the best teams in the state … definitely a top competitor."
The Thrill started slowly in pool, dropping the first set against Elite Cardinal, 25-20, but then fighting back to win the next 30-28 and then the third, 15-8.
They got into a flow after that and dropped the Jammers, 25-21, 25-15, and didn’t drop the tempo when they got to IC Stars, winning 25-23, 15-25, 15-13.
"It was a turning point for the girls," Ackerman said.
Going 3-0 in pool play, with 6-2 record in sets, the Thrill was reseeded No. 1 going into the tournament’s playoffs.
"I asked the girls what that meant, and I got the right answer: ’Absolutely nothing!’ Ackerman recalled.
CHAVC Thrill took out NC Elite White in the quarterfinals, 25-17, 25-19 and then had to face IC Stars again in the semis.
"There definitely was some nervousness before the semifinal, but we were on top f our game at that point," Thrill player Madison Gunning said. "They had given us a hard slap, but the games with them had been close; we knew we could win."
Thrill lost the first set of the semifinal against IC Stars, 20-25.
"As a team, we know each other’s weak points and know each other’s strength so well, we really know how to get each other out of their own heads when we start to get down," Thrill player Sydney Levine said. "When we make mistakes, we know how to get each other out of trouble."
Midway through the second set of the semifinal, Ackerman said she saw "a little swagger" growing in her players as they fought to win 25-21, and they went on to take a see-saw third set, 16-14, with Rebecca Goldman slamming an untouchable match-winning kill down the sideline off a set from Anna Tomkins.
The finals against Academy Crystal might have been a bit anti-climatic after that. The Thrill won the final 25-15, 25-23.
"We weren’t playing bad, but the tempo had slowed," Ackerman said. "We were tired, and we just needed to keep our energy level up."
For some, it was a triumph of the little guy over the bigger franchise, one that charges membership fees four to five times bigger than those of what some people termed the Thrill’s "fluffy little club."
Didn’t matter, others said, the CHAVC team had grown tremendously in a short amount of time.
"It was definitely the best tournament we ever had," Ragazzo said.
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