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Volleyball: Forsyth Central reaches state with thrilling win over Milton
Ava Elias 10-11-22
Forsyth Central's Ava Elias sets the ball during a Region 6-7A tournament match against Milton Tuesday at Denmark. (Photo by Nicholas Sullivan)

Forsyth Central volleyball put together a stellar 2021 campaign highlighted by a run to the Class 7A state quarterfinals and senior Emma Kiser being named FCN Player of the Year.

With Kiser and several other standout Class of 2022 members having moved on, the Bulldogs suffered through plenty of growing pains this year. But Forsyth Central eventually found its identity.

“The biggest thing that we’ve pushed since we played Milton in the regular season is that this team thrives on a practice mentality,” Bulldogs head coach Brian Welsch said. “… When you see us struggling, not only are we not having fun but also we’re focusing on the wrong things, which is the score and the errors. Some teams are game teams; some teams are practice teams. My team is a have fun team.”

Well, there's nothing more fun than locking up a return to the state playoffs in a five-set thriller. That's exactly what fifth-seeded Forsyth Central did against No. 4 seed Milton in the first round of the Region 6-7A tournament Tuesday at Denmark.

In a back-and-forth matchup, the Bulldogs survived an Eagles team that defeated them 3-1 in the regular season with a heart-stopping 17-25, 25-19, 28-26, 17-25, 15-9 victory.

“I’m just so proud of my team for gutting it out and never getting to a point where it was undoable,” Welsch said. “… They just battled. It was awesome.”

The fifth set saw Forsyth Central roll off the first five points behind the serving of Ava Elias and strong play at the net by Lilly Hamil. However, Milton answered right back to even the score at 5-apiece.

Welsch used a timeout in an attempt to end the run.

“We had to go back to serving and passing,” he said. “Volleyball is known to be a serving and passing sport. That’s been one of our struggles."

The timeout worked, as the Bulldogs reeled off 10 of the final 14 points to close out the win.

Elias finished with 31 assists, 10 digs, four kills, four blocks and three aces. Hamil paced the Bulldogs (10-20) with 14 kills and matched Elias with four blocks.

Annalise Leitner and Paulina Slabysh posted seven kills each, with Leitner adding 14 digs. Elyse Oneil led Forsyth Central with 24 digs, while Lauren Smallwood contributed 10.

Hamil established herself early in the middle of the court, scoring three of the Bulldogs' first four points of the match.

Even still, the Eagles pulled away during the opening set to take a 1-0 lead.

During the second set, the teams were even at 13-all until two points each from Maggie Lecoultre and Slabysh forced a Milton timeout. Despite allowing two straight points out of the stoppage, Forsyth Central managed to even the match at 1-1.

In a third set that proved to be a microcosm of the entire match, both sides put together strong runs and fought tooth and nail for every call.

“My team knows that I’m going to fight for them,” Welsch said. “My team knows I’m going to argue. I’ve tried to get way better at making sure we control what we can control.”

Lilly Hamil 10-11-22
Forsyth Central's Lilly Hamil tries to tip the ball over the net against Milton. (Photo by Nicholas Sullivan)
The Eagles led early in the set before the Bulldogs began to play their best volleyball of the entire evening. Forsyth Central eventually took a 23-19 lead, but Milton answered with five straight controversy filled points to inch closer to a third-set win.

However, a massive block by Elias and Hamil forged another tie, allowing the Bulldogs to eventually edge out the only non-local team in the region.

An 8-2 run for Milton midway through the fourth set put the Eagles in control, but a pair of kills by Hamil and a trio of spikes by Slabysh kept the Bulldogs competitive, setting the stage for the winner-take-all fifth.

Having secured a place in the Class 7A state tournament, Forsyth Central now will look to earn as high a seed as possible. The Bulldogs will face top-seeded Lambert in the Oct. 12 semifinals and play again the following day for either third place or in the finals.

But just being in this position is a culmination of hard work and determination throughout the season by the Forsyth Central players.

“After graduating a bunch of really great players and a great group of seniors, I had major concerns that this year’s team was going to try to be a different version of that team,” Welsch said. “I’ve pushed from the beginning that this team has something special. Every single person competes. Every single person has a role.

“I’m thrilled that we didn’t take a step back and say, ‘We don’t have those big names. Maybe, it’s not our year.’ Those kids believed. They stepped off the bus today, believing absolutely that they deserve to be in the state playoffs. It’s a game-changer for our program.”