One of the busiest people in Boonetown has to be the person charged with updating the volleyball region championship banner at North Central High School. Then again, the flag made of felt never collects a whole lot of dust.
In each of the past seven winters, the Lady Knights’ volleyball banner has had another emblem added to it as Andy Johnson’s girls brought home another conference crown. Johnson, though, is hoping to affix another badge to the banner this year but would not mind it if his troops would add a third one to the Upper State championship banner and, then get a new state championship banner.
Last season was a bittersweet one for NC which won the Region 3-AA title. It included a pair of in-season wins over archrival Andrew Jackson. But it was the Lady Volunteers who had the last laugh when they defeated their neighbors to the east in the semifinals of the AA Upper State tournament.
That emotional four-set match, played in front of a jam-packed crowd in Kershaw, propelled AJ into the AA state championship after the Lady Vols beat Ninety-Six in four sets before falling to now 14-time defending AA champion Bishop England.
“That’s in the past,” Johnson said when asked if there were any lingering after-effects of the season-closing loss. “We have games that come and go and, one game is not too big and one game’s not too small. We treat every game by saying that we play it one point at a time and, one ball at a time.”
The AJ loss capped an 18-3 campaign for Johnson and his girls which is back on the court with a taller lineup which includes three senior veterans and returning class AA All-State selections. Madeline Pate is a fifth-year varsity member who will play Libero while fellow seniors and 2013 all-staters Erin Humphries and Ambi Wood will provide plenty of thunder along the front line.
“I have a couple girls who are pretty experienced at the varsity level, probably moreso than we’ve had in the past,” Johnson said of his returning cast. “We’re somewhat experienced as far as being on the court and being in tough games and playing against quality opponents. Hopefully, that will pay off for us.
That all-state trio is joined by four other holdovers from a season ago in sophomore defensive specialist Logan Coates, who led the Lady Knights in setting as a freshman. Also back for their second go ‘round are junior defensive specialist Alexa Williamson, senior outside and right side hitter Khila Wood and senior middle hitter Ashley Turner.
“They have done a good job of being the leaders on our team so far and I hope for that to continue throughout this season,” Johnson said of his five seniors. “They know the expectations here and they know what it takes to be a quality team.”
Johnson is equally enthused about the influx of varsity newcomers which includes junior middle hitter Gracen Kerr, sophomore defensive specialist Kelsie Gardner, sophomore middle hitter Deja Linton and sophomore outside hitter/right side hitter Alexis Hackworth.
What one will notice on the 11-player roster is a majority of the girls have the word hitter attached to their name. That, their coach said, is a big difference from some years at NC.
“We do have some hitters at the net; for us, we have some pretty good size this year,” he said of an area which could become a strength for the Lady Knights. “Normally, we’re a lot smaller so our net play should improve as far as coverage along the net as well as with our hitting. We have a lot of choices as far as hitting balls at the net.”
With an abundance of players who can more than hold their own along the net, Johnson said it has not changed his coaching philosophy. What Johnson said is what good are players who can put the ball away for you if you cannot get the ball to them.
“Each year, we talk about ball control and ball control is so important to us when it comes to each of our players,” he said. “We want to pass it where we want to, set it where we want to and we want to hit it where we want to. (Having size) really doesn’t change the philosophy and the approach that we’ve had here for many years now. We’re just excited about some of the options that we have at the net this year.”
That winning formula starts at the top with Johnson and winds down to the successful junior varsity program. While on the court, the Lady Knights have produced positive results, Johnson said his coaching staff has played a key role in nurturing a winning culture in the past and continues to do so.
“The first thing is that they have to trust us as coaches,” Johnson said of a key to a successful program. “I think we have a quality coaching staff assembled which I would compare to anybody in the state of South Carolina. I have Nicole Gainey, who does a great job of helping me. I have Christy Holley, who does a great job with our jayvee team and who has many years of coaching and playing experience. And, I have Rene Mitchell, who is helping out for the first time this year, as well.
“I think there are times when we will say that we’ve been around great teams before and we know what quality volleyball looks like. Hopefully, our young ladies are receptive to us when we make those comments to them.”
NC should see better competition this season after having moved to Region 4-AA which has nearby rivals in Andrew Jackson, Buford, Indian Land, Chesterfield, Central and Cheraw replacing the weaker Columbia-area volleyball programs from Region 3-AA which NC faced the past two years.
“We’re excited about the new region. We got tired of all the travel up and down I-20 at all hours of the night,” Johnson said with a laugh.
“I think the move benefits us in a lot of ways; I think the volleyball is going to be better quality and there will be less travel for our student-athletes and, the natural rivalries are there.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere no matter where we play in this new region.”