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Despite playoff loss, North celebrates successful season

Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett players Carson Nevels (1) and Kristina Stinson (4) block a shot taken by Mill Creek's Cayla Graham (11). North Gwinnett defeated Mill Creek to win the area 6-AAAAAA girls volleyball tournament finals played Saturday at Collins Hill.

Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett players Carson Nevels (1) and Kristina Stinson (4) block a shot taken by Mill Creek's Cayla Graham (11). North Gwinnett defeated Mill Creek to win the area 6-AAAAAA girls volleyball tournament finals played Saturday at Collins Hill.

SUWANEE -- The finish wasn't ideal, but North Gwinnett's volleyball season still was very much a success.

The Bulldogs, though they didn't lose much in 2012, played their best late in the season and rode an 11-match winning streak into the Class AAAAAA state tournament. Included in that late-season run was an impressive 3-1 win over top-seeded Mill Creek for the Area 6-AAAAAA Tournament championship, their third in as many seasons.

They climbed to a No. 4 state ranking entering the state playoffs, but the season ended prematurely with a difficult first-round draw against seventh-ranked Chattahoochee, which eliminated North 27-25, 21-25, 25-22, 25-20 Thursday night in the opener.

"It was tough," North coach Vanessa Henry said. "It was a tough moment, a tough day. But I told them, don't let this one day sum up your season. This was definitely, overall, one of our best teams here."

Henry's team finished with an impressive 41-7 record.

Even in the first-round defeat, the Bulldogs showed a lot of character. They lost a tense first-game, but rebounded to win Game 2 and kept fighting until the end.

"That was a tough (game) to lose," Henry said of the first game. "We had some serving errors in there and we only lost by two. We dug a hole for ourselves. ... Volleyball's such a momentum sport. When you get behind, you can pull yourself out sometimes. But if you keep (falling behind) all night, eventually you're not going to be able to pull yourself out."

The Bulldogs evened the match with a strong second game, but they trailed 14-8 in the third game and never recovered. They were deadlocked at 14 in the fourth game, but six straight points by the Cougars (24-19) put more pressure on the hosts.

Kristina Stinson led North with 19 kills and fellow senior Miller Howard had 14 kills and 13 digs. MaTia Hughes, also a senior, had 37 assists and 18 digs while sophomore MeKenzie Cronic had 17 digs.

Prior to the state tournament, the Bulldogs dispatched of rival Mill Creek in the area championship game with a 25-21, 25-15, 23-25, 25-19 victory.

Stinson had 24 kills and Howard had 18 kills, along with six aces, in the area final. Hughes tallied 49 assists and Otten added 28 digs.

Stinson, Howard, Hughes and Otten all earned spots on the all-area tournament team.