Just a shot away

Bulldogs dominate Saints to advance to title match vs. Mount Olive

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The No. 1-seeded Barton men’s volleyball team’s dominating three-set conquest of underdog Limestone in a sweltering Wilson Gym on Friday night defined the circumstances.

With a plethora of weapons, the Bulldogs attacked relentlessly against a No. 4-seeded Limestone squad that couldn’t match Barton’s height and was without its top weapon, 6-foot-3 senior outside hitter Bruno Kretzschmar, a second-team all-conference selection who suffered an ankle injury in warm-ups.

Thus, Barton, the regular-season co-champion, with its 25-21, 25-22, 25-22 semifinals triumph, advanced into the NCAA Division II Conference Carolinas tournament championship game for the second straight year at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Wilson Gym. No. 3 Mount Olive stands in the Bulldogs’ path to their first league tournament championship in the program’s six-year history.

Mount Olive, twice a loser to the Bulldogs during the regular season, ousted No. 2 King, the other co-champion, in four sets in the opening semifinal.

“We had four first-team all-conference players out there and they all stepped up and played really well,” said Barton head coach Jeff Lennox. “ Our consistency was good and we dominated liked we needed. We let up a little bit at the end, and we needed to play aggressive. But I liked our mentality.”

Lennox was pleased with 42 kills in three sets and a strong .360 hitting percentage. He insisted the 17 service errors were not a concern because of the Bulldogs’ aggressive style. But sophomore Aleksa Brkovic, one of Barton’s four first-team all-conference performers, would have preferred the Saints’ Kretzschmar had not been limited physically.

“I was a little bit disappointed,” Brkovic admitted. “I wanted to play their best lineup. But we managed to leave that behind us and try to still play our game.”

The Bulldogs were simply too formidable at the net with the presence of 6-7 sophomore Justice Lord, 6-8 senior Nick Leary, 6-5 sophomore Vasilis Mandilaris and 6-6 Angelos Mandilaris. a freshman All-American.

“We would have been even better if we’d had a little better passing,” Brkovic insisted. “But we still managed to dominate at the net. We have been practicing high balls from deep and that helped a lot.”

The opening set stayed close until a kill and an ace from Leary, a block from Lord and a tip from Vasilis Mandilaris staked Barton to a 21-16 margin.

The Saints, behind gritty performances from 6-2 sophomore Julien Latard, 6-3 sophomore Kevin Rocklein and 6-4 senior Dylan Lavner, jumped to a 4-1 start in the second set. Barton’s first lead came at 6-5. The Saints rallied from a 12-8 deficit to a 12-12 tie but, with Lord serving, Barton tallied seven unanswered points. A kill from Angelos Mandilaris ended a Limestone spurt and two tips from Vasilis Mandilaris and a Saints’ service error ended the set. Barton withstood six service errors in the set.

In the third set, Barton opened with a 4-0 advantage behind the combination of Angelos Mandilaris serving and his brother prowling at the net. The Saints crept as close as 6-5 before Leary and Brkovic responded for the Bulldogs. Senior setter Federico Pagliara provided an early exclamation point with a tip to an unattended back line for a 20-14 Barton margin. A determined Latard tried to keep Limestone hopes flickering but, finally, a Brkovic kill sent the Bulldogs to the championship match.

“We lost our best player and it was kind of tough to start the game without him,” noted the distraught Latard. “We battled well but we lost our best weapon. We battled well, served well and passed well, but they’re a good team. Congratulations to them — they deserved to win because of the season they’ve had.”

Barton was triggered by 12 kills from Brkovic and 10 each from the Mandilaris brothers. Pagliara registered 34 assists. Senior Jay Novoa-Miralles led with nine digs, and Brkovic and Leary each had three block assists.

However, Brkovic fumed over the ratio of 17 services errors to just four aces.

“The ratio was bad,” he flatly said. “They managed to get to 20 points every set for no reason. Passing was our only deficit.”

Nonetheless, the 22-5 Bulldogs bid for the tournament championship that denied them last season.

“It’s a great experience, to be among the final two out of 10,” Brkovic declared. “It comes down to the best players since volleyball is not a sport with a lot of teams. I love to be here and I think my teammates love to be here — especially because of what happened last year.”

Added Lennox: We love playing Mount Olive. What more can you ask for?”

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