As the rather tall seventh-grader stepped onto the volleyball court at North Central High School, head coach Andy Johnson envisioned the hitter his program would have for the next six years.
By the time that young girl, Madeline Pate, finished her career as a Lady Knight, she left as one of the most versatile and honored players in the history of the program. Now, her next step will be as a member of the volleyball team at Converse College.
Pate, a five-year varsity letterwinner, signed a National Letter of Intent with the Valkyries in a ceremony held inside the NCHS gym witnessed by a group of family, friends and coaches.
A member of five consecutive conference championship teams in her varsity career, Pate was earned AA All-State honors as a sophomore, junior and senior. This past fall, she was voted the Region 4-AA Player of the Year by the league’s coaches and was selected to play in the North-South All-Star Match while also earning all-state accolades from the High School Sports Report. In her career, NC won 89 of 98 dual matches and sported a 47-2 conference mark.
Those numbers, however, tell only part of the story. In the classroom, Pate holds a 4.7 grade point average (on a 5.0 scale) while also being involved in various school and community projects. She is, as Johnson said, a well-rounded teenager.
"Madeline has great character," Johnson said. "She is a model student-athlete who has represented North Central in a first class manner both on and off the court. She is involved in several different clubs and organizations here. Her academics are outstanding. All that will carry her a long way in the career that she chooses once she completes college."
Converse College was always at the top of Pate’s college wish list and when incoming Valkyries’ head coach Brooke Stanley invited the North Central senior on campus for a camp, the bond between the school and the high school senior was cemented.
"I’ve always wanted to be a collegiate athlete but I never thought it would be possible until I had the coach at Converse invite me to a camp there. Then, I thought it might be real," Pate said minutes after her signing.
"(Converse) was my number one school and to have the opportunity to play volleyball here would be perfect."
The one person Pate needed to impress the most during her time on the Spartanburg campus was Stanley, who came to Converse after having been an assistant coach at her alma mater, the University of Albany, where she played volleyball for the Great Danes.
"Madeline is a great addition to our squad," Stanley said after having received Pate’s paperwork. "She has a heart of gold and I believe she will be an important piece to help our team become more successful. Her communication and defensive skills are something we need on the court. I have enjoyed getting to know her and look forward to seeing her grow as a person and an athlete here at Converse."
Attending the all-girls school is something which Pate is looking forward to in what will be a nurturing environment given the small student-to-faculty ratio and the security measures which Converse has implemented in order to ensure the safety of its student body.
"It’s a very small, tight-knit community," she said. "Some people have asked me, ‘You’re an athlete, why an all-girls school?’
"I feel like I get along with everybody so, it should be a good experience and it’s really safe. If somebody comes on campus and you’re now sure who they are, you’ll know if they should be there or not because it’s gated, which is really nice. It’s also pretty small and I really like having that one-on-one relationship with my teachers."
Pate played as a defensive specialist who also mixed in at hitter for the Lady Knights. The former is the role she is expected to fill at Converse. That, however, was hardly what Johnson thought he had in Pate when she earned a spot on the junior varsity as a seventh-grader.
"As a seventh-grader," he said, "Madeline was much taller than most seventh-graders around here. She also had played club volleyball in Kershaw County and with the Alpha and Omega clubs in the Camden and Lugoff-Elgin area. We just don’t have recreation league volleyball in our area, especially at that time. Some of her skills were a little more advanced and that was one of the reasons she was invited to see if she could compete at this level."
Pate led NC in both digs and serve-receive in her senior campaign. She was third in kills and the team’s top server for the last three seasons. "She’s a well-rounded player," Johnson said. "She has a great skill set and I look for (her coaches at Converse) to fine-tune it. She will probably do more specialized things at the college level.
"Madeline is probably going to be a defensive specialist at the college level; a back row player probably focusing on digging and ball control when it comes to passing. I don’t know whether she will do any hitting there because there are some giants when you move into the college ranks when it comes to hitting and playing at the net."
As she talked about how her main role went from being used along the net before splitting her time between the back and front rows, the personable Pate smiled as she talked about how her responsibilities changed at North Central.
"It was very different because I was expecting to get taller, stronger and being able to jump higher but that didn’t come so easily," she said. "I had to work at it every day. I had to play two positions; hitter and defensive specialist. I had to do double-duty throughout practice.
"But it was nice and an easy transition for me thanks to the help from Coach Johnson and Coach (Nicole) Gainey."
Pate will be able to focus on playing defensive specialist in college while leaving the front row chores to taller teammates, which is fine with her. In the same breath, however, she said playing in a dynamic sport such as volleyball means that you have to keep your entire body in shape from the legs, through the core and to the arms.
A member of the Columbia-based Magnum Volleyball Club, Pate plays volleyball for most of the calendar year but takes some time off between seasons. At Converse, she will be part of a program which volleyball is a year ‘round sport. "Having my body in condition to play volleyball throughout the year will be beneficial to my health but it will be different for me," she said before talking about the difference between the sport at the high school and college level.
"The pace of the game will be a lot different," she said. "Girls are taller, girls are stronger in college. And for me, I haven’t changed much. I want to be able to read the ball. These girls have been playing just as long as I have and the competition is going to be much tougher than in high school."
While the competition will be stiffer in college, Johnson said he has no doubt that Madeline Pate will be up to the challenge which awaits her at Converse.
"Madeline is very dedicated and committed; there was no question about that in the time that I have known her which is going on six years," he said. "You can always depend on her. She would give great effort and she wanted to improve.
"A lot of times when you look at players these days, coach-ability is very important with how they respond and how they react to you. And Madeline was outstanding in that respect."