AIKEN --- Facing two powerful kills in a matter of seconds, Monica Cardona responded both times with point-saving, one-armed diving digs.
Aiken's defense helped win that rally and the rest of the match as the team swept Irmo, 3-0, on Tuesday evening at Aiken to advance to Thursday's second round of the Class AAAA state volleyball playoffs.
"That defense is phenomenal," Aiken coach Malynda Young said. "They refuse to let it hit the floor."
Ranked No. 2 in their class, the Hornets were matched with an Irmo squad that featured a few tall hitters. Some Hornets were especially familiar with junior Taylor Treacy -- a North Carolina verbal commitment -- from club play, and Meredith Clemmens said it did lead to some nervousness since they knew what was on the other side of the net.
In the first set, the visiting Yellow Jackets jumped out to a 6-2 lead, a run that included a Treacy kill off the block.
But Aiken responded with five kills in a six-point span to take the lead. A few small runs by Irmo tied the opening set at 15 before a 10-5 run gave the Hornets the set. Ball placement was key, as it was in the rest of the match, as Aiken often put the ball in the corners and forced Irmo's back row to receive hits, making it more difficult to set up Treacy and the other hitters.
On one such play directed to the back, the ball bounced far off a Yellow Jacket and Natasha Dicks responded with a thunderous kill on the overpass.
"We tell them, 'Don't play harder, play smarter,' " Young said. "And we outsmarted them."
The Hornets, who had just two service errors, jumped out to a large advantage early in the second set. McKenna Dyer recorded an ace during an 11-1 run to effectively put the set out of reach. The Yellow Jackets did string together a few points, but Aiken won the long rally behind those two saving digs from Cardona. Jessica Ray also posted one of her team-high 10 kills to end one of those small Irmo point runs, as the Hornets grabbed set two.
Early on, it looked like the Hornets would romp in the third set. However, a 15-6 lead behind strong blocking soon gave way to eight Irmo points in a row. Young noticed her team seemed a little tentative hitting the ball.
But Aiken responded with consecutive points on two consecutive touches: a Jenni Law kill and a Olivia Teelon ace. The Yellow Jackets scored only four more points in the match. Their coach, Sandra Dickert, said her team has had trouble keeping momentum going during its runs.
The Hornets hit at a higher percentage with improved passing as the matched closed. Law also notched a kill that hit the rafters after Irmo received it before it finally landed for the match's final point.
"We know where everybody is going to be," Clemmens said. "We trust each other."