On top to stay

Covenant Day volleyball coach Heather Mills had a hunch that her team was about to do something special as she left the school for an away match on Aug. 29.

The Lions have already defeated the top team in the state and a team they’ve never before beaten. But with the help of (back row, from left) Megan Embry, Sarah Billiard (front row) Christina Goforth and Hannah Billiard, they want much more.

The Lions have already defeated the top team in the state and a team they’ve never before beaten. But with the help of (back row, from left) Megan Embry, Sarah Billiard (front row) Christina Goforth and Hannah Billiard, they want much more.

Mills has already guided the Lions to relevancy, leading them to at least 17 wins in each of the last four seasons. During that time the Lions have gone 91-37 and become a major player in the Metrolina Athletic Conference, posting a 57-9 conference mark during that stretch while also claiming two of the last three league titles.

So Mills is used to winning, but this was a different feeling. Mills was about to take her team to play at Charlotte Latin, the winners of nine consecutive private-school championships and the ultimate measuring stick of where

Mills envisions her program becoming. The Hawks had never lost to Covenant Day and, like usual, had defeated the Lions in two straight sets just five days earlier.

But Mills and her team had a premonition that day.

“I think we expected to beat them,” Mills said. “In fact, when I left for the gym I said to our coaches, ‘We’re about to do what we’ve never done.’ I just felt really confident.”

Mills’ intuition proved prophetic as the Lions defeated the Hawks, 3-0, for the first time in school history. Instead of jumping around and acting as though the Lions had just added another title to their collection of conference hardware, the players mostly congratulated the Hawks on a well-played match and went on their way.

“I think they celebrated,” Mills said. “It wasn’t a conference or state championship match and I think it’s important to appropriately celebrate, but they were happy with it.”

Plus, said junior outside hitter Christina Goforth, that singular win represented just one more notch on the Lions’ collective team goal.

“It was a milestone,” Goforth said. “We’ve never beaten them before, and it was something that we always wanted to do. I don’t know; it was just like we knew this was our year to beat them.”

With the Latin win behind them, the Lions (14-2 overall, 8-0 in MAC) went on about their business – winning their next four matches in straight sets. Then came another test as Covenant Day was set to play at Charlotte Country Day, the No. 1 team in the state, just more than a week later.

The challenge ended with nearly the same result as the Lions won, 3-2, and vaulted themselves to the No. 2 spot in the Class 3A state rankings – their highest-ever mark.

“It was super-challenging and they’re a really good team,” said junior middle hitter Hannah Billiard. “I feel it was probably one of the best games Covenant Day volleyball has ever played.”

Judging from the talented roster and demeanor the team has adopted from Mills, it may be the first of many well-played and meaningful games these Lions will play together.

“We’re growing more and more confident, but I’m really careful to keep them humble and remind them anybody can win on any day,” Mills said. “We’re practicing as hard as we can so we’re the best prepared because we don’t know what anyone else is doing in the gym.”

The competition in practice each day is what’s leading to the Lions’ ascension this season, Mills said. Despite losing the two-time reigning Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly Player of the Year in outside hitter Shelby Nassar, who is now at Wingate, and having just one senior – middle hitter Madison Hargette – on the roster, the Lions are proving they’re better than ever.

“Having such good competition one through 12 on our roster is a big plus,” Mills said. “Our practices are very good and intense and that’s what leads to us being prepared.”

With the loss of Nassar and three other seniors, the Lions had holes that have since been filled. Goforth has stepped in as the Lions’ leading attacker, pacing the team with 176 kills while compiling 76 digs, 24 aces and 10 blocks.

Junior setter Megan Embry returns to key the Lions’ offensive attack and has 384 assists and 103 digs. Freshman Sarah Billiard is second on the team with 140 kills and Hannah Billiard has 104 kills.

The four form the core of what is otherwise a very talented yet equally young team.

“I think the four of us are all really close,” Goforth said. “Our whole team is so tight-knit and so close I think that we all know we have to step up and lead the team. We’re not just good at leading, everyone is really good at following, too.”

The diversity Goforth speaks of comes in handy on the Lions current roster. Mills said Hargette, the lone senior, is a great leader and advisor to some of the younger girls as Covenant Day features four freshmen who contribute regularly.

Sarah Billiard missed a few games earlier in the season with an ankle injury or her numbers would be even higher. She’s joined by freshmen defensive specialists Maddie Grace Hough (78 digs), Macy Henry (140 digs) and setter Kristen Seibert (63 digs, 40 assists) to form a promising future for a team that appears to be peaking right now.

“We’re excited with how we’re playing,” Mills said. “This year and next we’ll be as strong as we are now, and we will hope to keep getting better from there.”

Although they’ve dispatched two teams who have been atop the volleyball landscape for a number of years, and ascended to their highest-ever state ranking, the Lions aren’t about to get complacent after such a good start to the season.

“I think, especially in our conference, people look up to us as being that (dominant) team,” Embry said. “Country Day and Latin are going to always be really good and they’re difficult teams to play. I don’t think we’re far surpassing them yet.

“But I think there are more people in our school that are interested in us now and taking us seriously. We have more people coming out to watch us because we haven’t had a team here for a number of years that has won states. I know (boys) tennis was close last year and I think that everyone is really getting behind us and supporting us.”

And if Lions’ fans are hitching their wagons and championship hopes on this team, that’s OK with the players who still don’t see themselves as having arrived simply because they beat the former top team in the state and the nine-time champions within two weeks of each other.

So, for the next eight games beginning on Friday, Sept. 20, against Providence Day, the Lions are focusing on getting better for the playoffs so they can reach their ultimate goal.

“(Latin and Country Day) were definitely tougher than just regular matches, but we know that long term we have bigger goals for ourselves,” Embry said. “Yes, that’s so exciting to beat Latin because we’ve never done it in the history of Covenant Day volleyball, so of course it’s absolutely amazing, but our ultimate goal is that we want to win states and we have the ability to do that this year. I think that’s where all of our mindsets are at.”

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