ROCKINGHAM — When the Lady Raider volleyball team wrapped up its 2019 campaign on Oct. 26, 2019, no one expected it would be 389 days until it would play competitively again.
But now the wait is over and the North Carolina high school sports calendar will begin on Tuesday. Amid the concerns and uncertainties with the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is sure — the Lady Raiders are glad to be back.
Third-year head coach Ashleigh Larsen and the Lady Raiders will open their season on the road at Purnell Swett High School. Richmond will play a 14-game, Sandhills Athletic Conference only regular season schedule.
“The girls have been waiting for this week for what seems like forever,” Larsen said. “We began workouts unsure of what the season would look like. Then it led to a schedule being released and just impatiently waiting for things to get underway. The coaching staff and all the girls are very eager for Tuesday to arrive.”
Helping Larsen on the coaching staff are Melissa Dennis (junior varsity head coach) and Madelyn Chappell (varsity assistant coach).
Richmond began outdoor workouts in August, and moved into the gym once the North Carolina High School Athletic Association cleared indoor play. The last two weeks have served as legitimate practices for the Lady Raiders, who return six seniors, many of whom have varsity experience.
“I’m super excited to be back with my team, no matter the circumstances,” Jakerra Covington, a senior middle hitter, said. “I’m glad I get to be back on the court and I can’t wait to grow together.
“We are looking forward to being successful this season and we’re going to have fun while doing it.”
Other members of the senior class are Georgia Grace Anderson (middle hitter), Taylor Chappell (outside hitter), Emy Cooley (libero), Kelly Hoffman (outside hitter) and Shelly Hoffman (setter).
Anderson is the lone returner who was named to the All-SAC team last season. She also finished second in the SAC standings as a junior with 261 kills (2.8 kills per set, 57.1 kill percentage).
New faces to the varsity team include juniors Saniah Durham (outside hitter), Kierston Gibson (outside hitter) and Allyiah Swiney (setter, outside hitter). Sophomore Catherine Dennis (outside hitter) will make the jump from junior varsity and freshman defensive specialist Christi Jacobs joins the team.
With the lack of preparation time and losing five seniors from last year, Larsen said she is still adjusting the team to a final starting lineup. In the team’s scrimmage last week and during practices, she has run different options to be prepared for whatever opponents will throw Richmond’s way.
“Jakerra and Georgia Grace are the definites who will hold down the middle. Their aggressiveness in blocking and hitting always helps us,” Larsen said. “They carried their positions last year and look to continue to be dominant this year.
“Kelly and Taylor look to step up on the outside position. They both have the strength to rip some hits at opponents and find the floor. Shelly and Allyiah will be adjusting to the setter and right side combination,” she added. “Emy will be taking over for libero to control the back row and Christi will look to help defensively as well.”
Larsen noted that Catherine Dennis, Durham and Gibson “have learned multiple positions to be able to assist as needed.” She plans to shape together a final lineup with each player in her respective comfort zone this week. Part of that has been the seniors fulfilling leadership roles.
“The seniors have stepped up to take leadership roles. They know what this season means for them in many ways,” Larsen said. “They watched some of their peers miss out on senior seasons last year and do not want to take anything for granted.”
Chappell, who is in her third season at the varsity level, recognizes the necessity for the six seniors to continue to lead the team, and hopefully to an SAC title.
“As seniors this year, I hope we set a good example for the underclassmen,” Chappell said. “We want to show them how to work hard as a team, lift each other up, and have a good time on the court, especially under the circumstances of the season.
“It is important to keep our spirits up and stay positive. I think what makes this group of seniors so special is that we are all very good friends. Most of us have played together since the beginning and we always have a good time when we are together.”
A season ago, the Lady Raiders finished 19-7 overall with a 9-5 mark against SAC schools. Richmond earned a third-place finish in the standings, the second time in as many seasons under Larsen.
This season will be all about chasing an SAC championship, something Richmond last achieved during the 2017 season. One x-factor that will be hindered is the Lady Raiders’ following, as only 25 spectators will be allowed in for games due to COVID-19.
“Our goal is to come out strong. We know every game is just as important as the next to come,” Larsen explained. “We start off with Purnell Swett and Pinecrest this week. Both are always aggressive teams to play, especially on the road.
“Unfortunately, our fanbase will have to cheer from afar, so that hurts us in boosting some fire into the girls when needed.”
Kelly Hoffman, who is looking to show out during her final campaign, said the bar is set high for the Lady Raiders to accomplish big things in 2020.
“I have high expectations for us this year and I think we will do very well this season,” Hoffman said. “It’s been hard adjusting to the new rules and regulations, but I’m just happy that we get to have a season.
“We still have things we need to work on, but that will come together with more practice and working together as a team. I hope we can achieve being No. 1 in the conference and make it to the state playoffs.”
The Lady Raiders have made the postseason both years under Larsen, but haven’t made it past the opening round.
With those years of experience, Larsen noted that every year is different from a coaching standpoint because of having to adapt to the team’s personnel. This season has seen added change because of the coronavirus.
“There have been a lot of adjustments and a lot of new plans put in place to adjust to the new group of girls on varsity,” Larsen said. “While many are returning, some have been waiting patiently at their chance at a starting position.
“COVID restrictions have caused a bit of a set back to my original plan, but I am just thankful we have made it this far and game day is right around the corner.”
One of those new adjustments will be players having to wear a mask during matches. The NCHSAA announced late last week that players, coaches and team personnel, as well as all fans, will need to wear a mask from whistle to whistle.
The Lady Raiders will begin their quest for an SAC title Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Purnell Swett. The junior varsity team, coached by Melissa Dennis, will play at 5 p.m.