Jada Battle could tell as far back as last season that something special was on its way.
Fast forward to October of 2019 where the SouthWest Edgecombe junior volleyball player’s prediction rang true.
The Cougars defeated visiting Eastern Plains Conference rival North Johnston on Tuesday in straight sets, 25-20, 25-10, 25-21, in a win that sealed the conference championship for the Cougars.
It was the first time SWE won a volleyball conference championship since 1994, a span of 25 years.
“I could tell since last year that we had a chance to be good, just from seeing the way we played together,” Battle said. “Every time we play a game we worked together more and more. Like every time we play a game something gets better. We had a lot of confidence in ourselves this year, and we’re working together, we’re moving, we’re passing, and when you have all that everything works out great.”
The Cougars (16-2, 8-1) closed out Game 1 after allowing the Panthers to cut the deficit to three points late in the game, then dominated the second game by scoring the final eight points.
North Johnston (2-13, 1-6) didn’t buckle in the final set and looked poised to dig out a win and extend the Cougars’ senior night at least one more game. The Panthers held an early 6-4 lead with the help of strong serves and solid net play, only watch the lead slip away when Battle stepped to the service line.
Battle, who won the Telegram’s girls’ basketball player of the year last season, got to the service line with her team trailing 6-5, and rattled off nine consecutive points to give SWE a 14-6 lead.
“Taking that lead felt really good,” she said. “It felt good to serve that way because I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that.”
It was a good time for it.
Buoyed by the recaptured lead, the Cougars were able to hold off one more North Johnston push that saw the Panthers gain a 17-16 lead. But it was short-lived as the senior-laden Cougars roared back to put away the Panthers and do something no other Cougars team had done in a span longer than the players on the court had been alive.
And it was fitting that Battle, who was surprised by her service success, secured the final three points at the line to seal the victory.
“It was about time for a change,” said Cougars coach Pamela Gorham, who is in her second stint as the school’s volleyball coach.
Gorham coached the Cougars from 2005 to 2008, and returned in 2018.
“I’m very proud of these girls. They’ve worked very hard since July 31, the first day we were able to work with them,” Gorham said. “We have stuck together since Day 1, and that’s what makes a team when everyone works together.”
The Cougars’ previous high-water mark for wins was 12. That came last season when the team went 12-9 overall and 5-5 in conference. And like Battle, Gorham saw budding potential last season that blossomed into a well-run machine that has ripped through the regular season.
After losing the first match of the season to North Lenoir, SWE went on a 15-match winning streak that was stopped on Oct. 10 with a tight, five-set loss to Farmville Central. The two schools split the season series.
But the loss didn’t deter the Cougars, who took the court on Tuesday knowing that their goal would still be determined by their own play.
“We told them before the game that if we win we clinch the conference, but we had to push that out and focus,” Gorham said. “I think it being senior night, and with the possibility of media members being here all played a part in the way we played tonight because they were so excited about playing with an opportunity to do something like this.”
Sophomore Lexie House played a large role in both leading the Cougars all season, and keeping the team in the right mindset in-game. House began playing volleyball at the age of 9, and hasn’t stopped since.
She plays during the high school offseason with club teams, and has a strong understanding of what it takes to win. House didn’t come off the court in any game on Tuesday.
“She’s an all-around volleyball player,” Gorham said. “She’s really advanced in volleyball, and I leave her out there the whole time. She’s my court leader, my captain, and it’s nice to have somebody out there who knows the game so well like she does.”
House said she was in these very bleachers as a middle schooler watching her current high school teammates play. She couldn't wait to be old enough to get on the court herself and contribute. Now she’s here and doing just that.
“I’ve been watching these seniors and juniors since I was in middle school, so watching them improve and having it all come together and be a part of it was great,” House said. “It was fun out there today. And when we took back control (in Game 3) it was exciting and the tension goes away a little bit. That final point I think I blacked out because it was so exciting.”
The Cougars have one more regular-season match to play on Thursday at Wilson Beddingfield before the postseason begins.