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Lady Knights hoping the present will reflect their past

Posted: September 1, 2010 10:38 a.m.
Updated: September 1, 2010 10:35 a.m.
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SENIOR SETTER APRIL BARRETT is one of three returnees for head coach Andy Johnson’s Lady Knights this season. After opening the season with Buford on Tuesday, North Central will travel to meet rival Andrew Jackson in a Thursday match at 6:45 p.m.

Those tears which streamed down the faces of the North Central volleyball players following their season-ending loss to Landrum in the second round of last year’s class A state tournament, have been replaced by girls with a gleam in their eye, ready to add to the winning legacy of the Lady Knights’ program this year.

With just a trio of returning varsity players from last year’s 15-2 team, head coach Andy Johnson is hoping that new faces will be able to keep up the Lady Knights’ winning ways of the past. But, Johnson pointed out prior to the start of a practice last week, even the newcomers bring a winning background with them to the varsity level. Add in the fact that the team had spring practice, the summer and the pre-season to gel and you have a coach and team whose sights and standards have not been been altered.

“Our jayvee girls were successful last year,” he said. “We’ve put the time in this summer where we faced some good competition and we’ve had some good scrimmages, too. So, they’re getting accustomed to playing at this level.

“Any time you go up a level, the game gets quicker, players are more athletic and the speed on the ball is different than what they saw at the jayvee level.”

For three seniors --- setter April Barrett, defensive specialist Hannah Gainey and outside hitter Kelle Phillips --- the pace of action of the varsity game is old hat. Those girls, Johnson said, are the backbone of the team and are the players whom the younger girls look up to.

While the pieces to the NC puzzle are still coming together on the floor, Johnson said the building blocks for his squad are firmly in place.

“I think that we’ll have good leadership. Our captains have done a really good job of being good leaders for us. They’ll set the example,” Johnson said of the aforementioned three players. “They have been around good teams and they know what it takes to be a good team. Hopefully, that will rub off on some of these other young ladies.”

This has not been the smoothest of pre-season workouts for the Lady Knights. Nagging injuries in the first weeks of pre-season drills kept various players out of action for periods of time. The ailments interrupted the team’s continuity and flow of the practices and scrimmage contests, but in the final days prior to Tuesday’s season opener with Buford, things were starting to come together as the injuries mended.

“It will start paying off, once we’ve had the chance to spend more time with everybody in the gym,” said Johnson, who has had his entire squad available for just six pre-season practices. “Our girls are coming along, though. We’re doing some teaching and we’re doing some coaching here. If they are receptive to that, we’ll be fine.”

NC has a solid group of seven juniors, who have worked their way through the junior varsity to the varsity program. Those girls have paid their dues and are prepared to reap the benefits of their hard work, said Johnson.

Makayla Howell, Cassady Robinson, Samantha Snipes and Meagan Moseley will all see action at middle hitter and at right side hitter for NC. Junior classmates Elexis Ross, Karlie Watkins and Tiffany Rogers will line up at outside hitter, right side hitter and libero/setter, respectively.

A pair of sophomores are expected to contribute along the net. Kaileigh Davis is a middle hitter/right side while Ashley Rogers is a player who will see action at libero along with her duties as an outside hitter.

The youngest of all the Lady Knights is Madeline Pate, an eighth-grader, who will skip playing middle school and junior varsity ball to come to the varsity as a middle hitter.

Johnson said it was too difficult to name a starting rotation. Instead, he was using the final scrimmages, practices and, possibly, early season non-region games and tournaments, to let the chemistry develop and see which six girls work best on the floor.

“Really, nothing is set, right now. We’re still looking at people and different options,” he said of the starting unit. “One thing which we have on our team is flexibility. We have a couple girls who can fill some spots. That’s what we’re using this pre-season and the early part of the season for, to shake things out and see where we should play people.

“Competition is a good thing. So, from one practice to the next, some things may change.”

Johnson said he believed his team would start to forge its own identity with more time on the court together. With another strong schedule of non-conference matches --- including a pair of in-season tournaments at 4A schools --- the Lady Knights’ boss hopes that will pave the way to another Region 3-A title.

Last fall, NC steamrolled the competition in conference play as its girls did not lose a match en route to the crown. Johnson hesitated to call his girls the favorites this time around.

“We lost Indian Land and Buford (to 2A),” he said of the six-school circuit. “I would anticipate that McBee will be much improved. They lost very few players off their team. And, Chesterfield always has good female athletes.”

While those teams may be improved and have good athletes, respectively, they do not have the winning tradition which the Lady Knights can fall back on as they enter the 2010 campaign. That, Johnson said, is what he hopes will help carry young squad feed off and build on this season.

“Our players come in and we expect to compete, no matter who we’re playing,” he said of his team’s unchanged goals. “We have several tournaments that we’re going to this year and as I tell them, I think that we go out and compete against some of the best teams in the state. With the time and the work our young ladies have put in, it will, hopefully, pay off here in the near future for this team.”

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