It’s never easy for a volleyball team to replace its best hitter. Often times, they are the tallest player on the court and the most athletic girl in the gym.
But as Northern Nash opens the 2014 season, Knights’ coach Patricia Haggerty isn’t worried about replacing Alexus Hill. Instead, she is just trying to make a core group of seniors duplicate what the Telegram’s 2013 All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year was able to do last season.
Northern Nash returns eight seniors from last year’s team that went 15-9 and advanced to the second round of the 3-A state playoffs. While there is plenty of experience, there is also a notable absence. Hill, who led the team in kills, blocks and aces, is now playing basketball at Gardner-Webb.
But according to Haggerty that’s OK.
With seniors Kiana Thomas, Susie Skyes and Caroline Jenkins back in the Knights’ lineup, and a new rule change, Northern Nash is expected to making another playoffs run out of the Big East Conference.
“We’re definitely going to miss Alexus, that’s going to leave a void. But hopefully these other girls can step in and pick it up.
“We’re no longer just a one girl team,” Haggerty said. “I still expect us to be one of the top three teams in the conference.”
Jenkins was a Telegram First-Team All-Area selection last season and returns as the top setter in the Twin Counties. Her job will be to feed the offense through Thomas and Sykes ,who will combine to fill the void left by Hill in the middle of the net.
But while the trio of Jenkins, Thomas and Skyes figures to be the key to leading the Knights back to the playoffs, it’s a rule change that Haggerty believes could have a lasting impact.
This summer the North Carolina High School Athletic Association put a 23-match limitation on the schedule, meaning teams could no longer play multiple midseason tournaments and enter the playoffs with 30 or 35 games under its belt.
Coaches across the state voiced their displeasure with the rule change, but Haggerty, who’s in her 20th season of coaching, said it was a step in the right direction.
For the past few years Northern Nash has been at a disadvantage. They haven’t been able to play as many regular season games as some of the schools in Raleigh or Charlotte because of travel, which has often allowed for teams to be more prepared or seasoned when they enter the playoffs.
“Volleyball in this area isn’t like how it is in other parts of the state,” Haggerty said. “I’d look at other teams in the playoffs and they would be 30 and something … that’s a difference.
“I like that there is a number now, hopefully it can level things out.”
While Haggerty feels that the change will work in her favor and balance out the state volleyball scene, new Tarboro coach Linda Draughn is just trying to find a winning system in her first season with the Vikings.
Tarboro went 4-15 last year and has started the season with three straight losses.
Draughn said her team has the talent to compete in the 1-A Two Rivers Conference, but she has to convince her players of that before they can reach their potential.
“It’s just a mental thing with the girls. They work hard in practice, but then they get on the courts and they aren’t winning,” Draughn said. “Once we get that first win, I think we will be OK.”
Southern Nash and Nash Central figure to be competitive in the Big East Conference, while Rocky Mount Academy will count on five returning starters from last season’s squad to make a playoffs push out of the 1-A Costal Plains Conference.
Five Players to Watch:
1. Caroline Jenkins, Sr., Northern Nash - The lone returning Telegram First-Team All-Area selection from last season, Jenkins is the voice of the Knights. She had 195 assists last season as the team’s setter.
2. Jazmine White, Sr., Tarboro - When she’s on, she’s on. White will have to compete at a high level this season as an outside hitter if the Vikings figure to be competitive.
3. Kiana Thomas, Sr., Northern Nash - The 6-foot-3 Thomas doubles as a forward on the basketball court. She will work around the net and be the center of the Knights’ offense.
4. Sara Keel, Sr., Nash Central - An all-state softball selection, Keel was also a Telegram All-Area Honorable Mention last season. She’s the Bulldogs’ top player.
5. Landin Johnson, Sr., Rocky Mount Academy - The Eagles return plenty of girls from last season, but lack height outside of Johnson. A lot will be asked of the 6-foot-2 middle blocker.
Sports writer Andrew Ivins can be reached at 407-9951 or aivins@ rmtelegram.com