Panks leads North to curse-breaking win

SUWANEE — After getting bumped from the Class AAAAA volleyball state playoffs in the second round in each of the last two years, North Gwinnett finally broke what head coach Vanessa Henry called the “Sweet 16 Curse.”

Behind a strong performance from setter Alex Panks and outside hitter Kelsey Knudsen, North reached the elite eight for the first time in school history with a three games to one win over Grayson in the tournament’s second round on Tuesday night.

Panks continually fed Knudsen, along with Kristina Stinson and Annie Wheeler, to tally 44 assists as North (45-3) used its height advantage up front to eventually wear down the Rams.

“We play club together and she knows how I’m going to set the ball,” Panks said of the connection between her and Knudsen on the court. “If I get a good set, I know when it’s a good one and get so happy when she hits it.”

Knudsen took feeds all night long from Panks, getting most hits from the right side, as she recorded 22 kills on the night while Stinson pounded 18.

Those kills came fast and furious in Game 1 as North jumped out to a 9-0 lead and rolled to a 25-11 win. The momentum from that win, however, didn’t carry over into the second game as the Rams (23-18) bounced back to tie the match at a game apiece with a 25-20 win.

“I thought it was nerves in the first game and we just had to settle into our environment,” Grayson head coach Kimberly Mohr said. “I’m so proud of this team. They played their hearts out. It hurts to lose but what can you say? They gave it everything they had.”

With the match tied 1-1, North took the pivotal third game 25-19, once again jumping to an early lead with a 6-0 run. That six-point cushion turned out to be huge as Grayson got as close as one point at 11-10 and again making a run late at 19-17, but the serving of Ashleigh Clark and Stinson was too strong down the stretch as the Bulldogs closed out the game with a 6-2 run.

In Game 4, North again pulled ahead early with a 6-2 lead but couldn’t shake the Rams as Kristi Cheesman, who finished with 11 kills, delivered five of them in the fourth game to keep the Rams close.

Grayson would get as close as one point at 19-18 but North once again turned to its power to pull away, getting four key kills from Knudsen, while Stinson’s 18th kill from Panks’ 44th assist sealed the match at 25-20.

“Alex has really started to learn her hitters,” Henry said. “It’s almost a sixth sense thing with her and Knudsen. They practice and play a lot in the off season and can sense where they are on the court.”

Michelle DeMaris also had a solid game for North with 10 digs, while Grayson’s Ana Gross led all players in that department with 25.

Hannah Barney of Grayson challenged North’s front line with strong defense by blocking six shots, while Shenise Howard finished with 17 assists and seven kills for the Rams.

“We’ve been here the last two years and now we’re one step closer to reaching our goal,” Henry said.

“The biggest excitement I have is for the players. They have worked so hard and I want it for them more than anything.”

While North has more work cut out in the upcoming quarterfinals, its opponent won’t be known right away as the remaining eight teams will be seeded one through eight by a GHSA committee. The higher seeds will host the quarterfinal round Saturday with the winner advancing to the semifinals on Oct. 27 at Kennesaw Mountain High School.

The finals will be held Oct. 30 at Marietta High School.