Young Lions volleyball squad ready to build on program’s recent success
After winning a school-record 22 matches two years ago, Covenant Day volleyball coach Heather Mills figured last season would be a rebuilding year. The Lions had lost six seniors from that team, which also finished 13-1 in the Metrolina Athletic Conference, and the number of underclassmen outweighed the juniors and seniors on the 2011 squad.
But to her surprise, the team’s freshmen — especially Megan Embry, Christina Goforth and Hannah Billiard — were immediate contributors, and the Lions finished third in the MAC and were 17-9 overall.
“At the beginning of the year, it was different from 2010,” said senior Shelby Nassar, who last season was named the Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly Player of the Year after leading the Lions with 362 kills and 87 aces, and was second with 213 digs.
“It was tough at first because we couldn’t do many of the things we were used to doing,” Nassar continued. “But as the season wore on, we were able to run more formations, and we got so much better along the way.”
Entering the 2012 season, the Lions have a core group of sophomores to team with Nassar, and they expect to be in the mix for the conference championship once again.
“We were young last year and we are still really young again overall this year,” Mills said. “The experience these guys got last year was invaluable, though. We are trying to build on that success and take it up a notch this year.”
Even with Nassar entrenched as their captain and leader, the 2012 Lions’ young players still outnumber the veterans. In fact, eighth-graders Macy Henry and Sarah Billiard and freshman Charissa Coleman are expected to contribute immediately.
Sophomore Megan Embry doesn’t think the transition will be difficult for the younger players. In her first season of play last year, Embry and Goforth were able to step in and rank among the team leaders in digs, aces and kills, with Embry recording a team-high 604 assists.
“All of the freshmen last year really didn’t know what to expect, and it was nerve-wracking at times,” Embry said. “A lot of us had played club before, and that helped us out and a lot of the girls coming in are in the same situation we were in.”
If the new girls can mesh right away – a process that can be made easier, Mills said, because there are no cliques and everyone genuinely gets along — the Lions should be even better than last year when they reached the private-school 3A playoffs but lost, 3-0, in the first round to Forsyth Country Day. But most players were encouraged by the defeat.
“I was surprised with how well we did, especially with all of the young people we had,” Embry said. “Right when that game was over, I started to get excited about (this year). I knew we had mostly everybody coming back, and I knew we would be strong this year, so it was more excitement for me than anything else.”
The Lions, behind their core of young players and Nassar’s senior leadership, are ready to challenge conference foe SouthLake Christian, a team that went unbeaten before losing its only game of the 2011 season in the state championship match to Charlotte Latin. But SouthLake Christian also lost arguably its top three players.
“We expect to do very well this year,” Mills said. “We feel like we can compete for a conference title and see how we stack up with the Latins of the world. We are young again. But you know what? I kind of like that.”
Mills also said Nassar is a great role model and an inspiration to the younger players on the team.
“Her strength is her consistency,” Mills said of Nassar. “She lets her play on the court do her talking for her. She has grown a lot and is still growing, as a player and a leader, but she has had to step up, and I am proud of her.”
Nassar said she is excited to be a part of the team and is proud to be one of the few seniors.
“This year is a little different for me,” she said. “It is a little bit sad, but I am looking forward to it. I am the leader, and I think people look to me for certain things, but it is fun because everyone is so supportive.”
Embry thinks it is easy to be supportive of Nassar because she is the Lions’ best player and is so consistent in practice that her approach to the game rubs off on her teammates.
“You see Shelby working hard, and you want to do better for her,” Embry said.
While the Lions are even younger this year, they truly believe this could be a special season for them.
“Last year was fun, and we were right there,” Nassar said. “We were close then, but I think this year we can be really good.”