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Veteran Lady Knights eyeing another region title

Posted: September 3, 2013 1:10 p.m.
Updated: September 4, 2013 5:00 a.m.
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NC HEAD COACH Andy Johnson and senior setter Jo Phillips watch the Lady Knights in a scrimmage match.

In a day and age in which winning seasons can come and go with virtually each graduating senior class, it’s nice to know some things never change.
In Boonetown, some of the faces on the volleyball court may be, but the results stay the same. With Andy Johnson at the helm, the Lady Knights won five consecutive Region 3-A championships before adding a Region 3-AA title a year ago.
Gone from last season’s 16-2 squad, which lost to Chesterfield in the second round of the state playoffs, are a pair of senior starters. The Lady Knights return a deep and experienced roster which will give Johnson more options as to what players will play where when the opportunity presents itself.
“This year’s team seems to have more of a mix of front row and back row players,” Johnson said as to the depth of his team. “A couple years ago, I had a team that I subbed a good bit. When I say subbed, I mean that I specialized more with passers who, went they rotated from the back row to the front row, I would have them switch out with some of our taller, front row hitters.
“It makes for a lot of players playing and, it makes for more competitive practices. You can put your best front row players against your best back row players. I anticipate that as being one of our strong points this season; the chance to specialize in some areas.”
A late-season loss to Columbia prevented NC from running the table, again, in conference play while also being the lone blemish on what was shaping up to be a perfect dual season slate. In that setback, as well as the loss to Chesterfield, a few miscues proved to be the Lady Knights downfall.
As the team reconvened for the start of pre-season practice, Johnson, again, preached and worked on doing the little things which oftentimes can be the difference between a victory and a defeat.
“One of the things we try to stress is ball control and that’s one of the things that we’re still working on,” Johnson said. “We focus a lot on that as far as being able to put the ball where we want to; whether it’s a pass, a set or a hit. That’s one of the things that we’ve focused on and hope to improve on as we go through the season.”
The Lady Knights will have a good blend of players when they open their season when Buford and Hartsville come to The Castle for Thursday’s season opener. A trio of seniors tops the list with seven experienced junior players helping to provide leadership for a squad which also includes one sophomore and a freshman.
Senior setter/defensive specialist Jo Phillips is back for her third varsity campaign while classmates Destinee Logan, a defensive specialist, and Summer Catoe, who will play middle hitter and right side hitter, are back for their second go ‘round with Johnson.
The most experienced player on the team is junior Madeline Pate, who was brought to the varsity as an eighth-grader. The candidate for post-season honors returns as an anchor at outside hitter. Junior Erin Humphries brings experience as an outside hitter while Ambi Wood came on strong as her sophomore year progressed and looks to be a force at middle hitter while junior Libero Rachel Robinson brings experience and leadership to that post.
Johnson said he anticipates receiving strong contributions from juniors Hattie Rutherford (defensive specialist), Khila Wood (right side/outside hitter) and Ashley Tuner (middle hitter) along with sophomore second-year varsity player Alexa Williamson (right side/defensive specialist) and first-time varsity performer, freshman Logan Coates, who will play setter and as a defensive specialist.
 While Johnson said this team may not have as many interchangeable parts as some of his previous teams, he said the Lady Knights will play to their strength, as often as possible.
“We did some teaching with our younger players to get them up to speed with what we do,” he said of the learning process. “We’ve had competitive practices, but there have been some days where we have had to slow it down, too.  Sometimes, we’ve had to share the gym and, that has hampered our preparation time.
“We’re doing some teaching and learning with some of the younger players, but we have a good mix of experience in there, as well. A lot of the returning players have set the tone for the players who are coming in. It’s been a good pre-season for us.”
As has been the case in the past, Johnson put his players into the frying pan right from the start as NC faced 4A entries such as Fort Mill, Rock Hill, South Pointe and Lugoff-Elgin in pre-season scrimmages along with 3A entries such as Camden, Nation Ford and River Bluff.
Come Saturday, the Lady Knights will head to Sumter for the Sumter Spike-Off tourney which will include a blend of 4A, 3A and 2A squads. That event when combined with the rugged scrimmage slate, Johnson hopes, will help his team prepare for the region and, post-season.
“Hopefully, that will help us when we kick off our season,” he said. “With the scrimmages we’ve had and playing a tough tournament that first weekend, we can build on those and use that experience when we take the court.”

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