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SEASON PREVIEW: Lady Raiders dialed in to ‘get back on the radar’ in 2022

Senior middle hitter Catherine Dennis, one of two All-Conference players returning, spikes the ball during Tuesday's practice. (Kyle Pillar, sports editor)

ROCKINGHAM — In between drills during Tuesday’s practice, members of the Richmond volleyball team gathered together to discuss strategies and offer one another advice.

That level of interest and dedication amongst the Lady Raiders is what head coach Ashleigh Larsen believes is the starting point for a comeback season.

Set to open the season on Tuesday, the Lady Raiders are looking to bounce back from an off year in 2021. A season ago, Richmond went 4-16 overall with a 3-9 mark against 3A/4A Sandhills Athletic Conference opponents.

A core group of returning varsity starters highlights a team that is hoping to build upon its sixth-place finish in the conference standings. Of the dozen players on this year’s roster, eight of them carry at least a year of varsity experience.

Larsen, who is in her fifth season as head coach, expects the new campaign to be a lot more competitive, especially with a deeper bench of talent and sets played.

Head coach Ashleigh Larsen serves a ball during a drill on Tuesday. (Kyle Pillar/The Richmond Observer)

“We were young last year and we were coming off COVID-shortened season in 2020,” Larsen said. “Overall, there wasn’t a lot of experience gained by the girls whether they were on varsity or junior varsity. 

“Last year was a transition year and we did get better,” she continued. “Our level of play has grown a lot this year, and the girls are asking questions about their movements and making a better effort to improve. The effort is there to help put us back on the radar for other teams in the conference to pay attention to.”

Another added bonus this fall is the competitive nature of the team, as Larsen expects there to be several players contending for playing time at each position.

Richmond will be led by two returning All-Sandhills Athletic Conference middle hitters from a season ago, senior Catherine Dennis and junior Katie Way. 

Emerging as a force in the center of the net as a junior, Dennis led the team with 26 blocks (1.5 blocks per match) and 98 kills (1.8 kills per set) in 2021, and also helped out along the back line with 37 digs (2.2 digs per match).

Way also impressed in her first varsity season, notching 55 kills (1.7 kills per set, second on the team), a 27.2 kill percentage with 27 points served and 40 digs.

New to the front line this season will be junior middle hitter Makailah Jackson, who Larsen expects to help solidify the team’s attack and defense.

Junior Katie Way is one of two returning All-SAC selections for the Lady Raiders this fall. (Kyle Pillar/The Richmond Observer)

On the edges, senior Quston Leviner and juniors Jenna Gardner, Addy Hollingsworth, Christi Jacobs and Keyoni Nichols will provide depth at the outside and right side positions. Leviner and Jacobs are both multi-year varsity players, as the others are all making the jump this fall.

Nichols is also working as one of three setters during preseason practices, joining Gardner and sophomore Ava Edmondson. Gardner set for the Lady Raiders last season and Edmondson joined the varsity roster part way through the season and carried most of the duties. 

Working out of the back row will be senior defensive specialists/liberos Joy Styles and junior Allie Rodgers, both of whom collected a lot of minutes for Richmond last fall. Adding depth will be junior newcomer Kady Harris.

“The girls were not content with the outcome of last year,” Larsen said. “We had some games where we just couldn’t get things running together and there were many things we had to overcome.

“It’s different this year as we’re better prepared and have a more positive attitude. Our goal is to always be No. 1 in the conference and the girls want to battle and show up. If they do that and have the right mindset, we can be the best team possible.”

Junior Allie Rodgers, part of a strong back row, digs a ball during Tuesday’s practice. (Kyle Pillar/The Richmond Observer)

Pinecrest (12-0), Scotland (9-3) and Union Pines (9-3) were the top three teams in the split conference standings last season. Knowing there is a ladder to climb to regain the team’s first conference title since 2017, Larsen is confident the team is on the right track.

Another goal is to make the NCHSAA 4A state playoffs, something Richmond hasn’t done since 2019.

Since practices began last week, the Lady Raiders have been spending time breaking down the fundamentals and areas that Larsen feels need the most attention. They’re also developing specific skills to their assigned positions.

“We are so deep in so many positions, which creates a good competition between the girls,” Larsen explained. “I don’t have a lineup set, but we’ve been working on two or three different rotations each practice to see what meshes well together.

“The girls have accepted the reality check of fighting for spots and playing time, and that has improved practice. The intensity level is up and the girls want to get better at their positions and that’s good to see from a coaching perspective.”

Richmond will play in a preseason jamboree on Saturday at Lee County High School, where Larsen intends to “play as many rotations as possible.”

The Lady Raiders will officially open their 21-match regular season on Tuesday at non-conference Montgomery Central High School.

VIDEO INTERVIEWS

Catherine Dennis, senior middle hitter

Joy Styles, senior defensive specialist

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Jenna Gardner, junior outside hitter

Ashleigh Larsen, head coach

The Richmond Observer will continue its coverage of the Richmond varsity and junior varsity volleyball teams this fall.

Below is the complete 2022 schedule for the Richmond volleyball team. Home matches are bold and conference games are marked with an asterisk. Varsity matches will start at approximately 6 p.m., following junior varsity.

Aug. 16 @ Montgomery Central

Aug. 17 vs. Purnell Swett

Aug. 18 @ Uwharrie Charter Academy

Aug. 22 @ Purnell Swett

Aug. 23 vs. Uwharrie Charter Academy

Aug. 25 vs. Montgomery Central

Aug. 30 @ Southern Lee *

Sept. 1 @ Pinecrest *

Sept. 6 vs. Hoke County *

Sept. 7 vs. Anson

Sept. 8 vs. Union Pines *

Sept. 13 @ Lee County *

Sept. 14 @ Anson 

Sept. 20 vs. Scotland *

Sept. 21 @ Pine Forest

Sept. 22 vs. Southern Lee *

Sept. 27 vs. Pinecrest *

Sept. 29 @ Hoke County *

Oct. 4 @ Union Pines *

Oct. 6 vs. Lee County *

Oct. 13 @ Scotland *

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Kyle Pillar is a nine-time North Carolina Press Association award-winning sports editor with The Richmond Observer. Follow the sports department on Twitter @ROSports_ for the best in-depth coverage of Richmond County sports.