Thursday, 14 January 2021 18:03

SEASON RECAP: Lady Raiders conquer 'emotional roller coaster' season

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SEASON RECAP: Lady Raiders conquer 'emotional roller coaster' season Kyle Pillar — Sports Editor.

ROCKINGHAM — Ashleigh Larsen summed up the 2020 Richmond Senior High School varsity volleyball season in one simple sentence.

“It was definitely one for the books,” the third-year head coach said.

In a year of uncertainty due to the pandemic, the Lady Raider volleyball team persevered and played 12 of its originally scheduled 14 regular-season matches. 

COVID-19 protocols cost Richmond two home matches down the final stretch of the season, and Larsen’s squad finished with a 5-7 overall record. That was good enough for fifth place in the Sandhills Athletic Conference standings.

Alongside cross country, volleyball was one of the first two sports to return to official play after an eight-month hiatus to interscholastic sports. Admitting that the Lady Raiders had their fair share of obstacles, Larsen said she was proud of how her team handled the “emotional roller coaster.”

“Day to day, and hour to hour, we wondered what was going to change or happen,” Larsen said. “This came into full force especially toward the end of the season. The protocols became part of daily life by week two or three. 

“The girls knew exactly what was coming and we began to have a sense of ease as we entered practices and games,” she continued. “I hope we were able to help set a platform for the sports that are about to begin at Richmond.

“It was an emotional roller coaster for all. It was frustrating to only play 12 matches when we already had a shortened season, but I am thankful we were allowed that time to play together.”

This season, Richmond had six senior players, all of whom became regular starters for the Lady Raiders. Georgia Grace Anderson and Jakerra Covington returned to hold down the net as middle hitters, while Taylor Chappell fulfilled her role as an outside and right side hitter.

Emy Cooley became the team’s starting libero and quickly filled the shoes left behind by former player Layne Maultsby. Kelly and Shelly Hoffman also adapted to their new roles at outside hitter and setter, respectively. 

Allyiah Swiney, a junior hitter, made the jump to varsity and helped the Lady Raiders compete. The seven players proved to be the core of the team, playing in all 40 of Richmond’s sets this fall. 

Anderson led the way in kills, recording 95 kills in 12 matches (2.4 kills per set, 7.9 per match). She will leave Richmond as the program’s all-time leading kills scorer with 475 kills in her three-year varsity career. Anderson’s .545 hitting percentage was the best in the conference.

Right behind Anderson were Kelly Hoffman (73 kills, 6.1 per match), Covington (65 kills, 5.4 per match) and Chappell (28 kills, 2.3 per match). 

Swiney finished the season as the leader in aces, serving up 20 perfect serves. Anderson’s 18 aces were second on the team, followed by Kelly Hoffman (13 aces) and Chappell (12 aces). Shelly Hoffman was the team’s leader in assists, dishing out 223 total assists for an average of 5.6 assists per set and 18.6 per match.

Defensively, Cooley tallied 196 digs (4.9 per set, 16.3 per match). Chappell proved to be a strong backrow player, collecting 102 digs, an average of 8.5 per night. Kelly Hoffman ended the season third on the team with 94 total digs (7.8 per game).

“The girls’ determination impressed me the most. We all knew going in that we had a large senior class to leave us last season and we had some spots to fill,” Larsen explained. “We played the waiting game for what felt like forever to finally get the green light to resume workouts. 

“The coaches and I all joked that it felt like we have been playing volleyball forever when December hit, but I would not have had it any other way. The girls learned to appreciate their time and give everything they had. 

“They worked hard to earn their playing time and adjust to their new roles. Some were stepping into starting positions that they have been patiently waiting for, while others became leaders for all. I think the girls were not content with their outcome. I tried to reassure them each game they played that they showed growth, despite the overall record.”

When asked which moments stood out to her, Larsen said the season felt like a whirlwind of adjustments. The team spent the beginning of the season trying to solidify a lineup, which was followed by the team then trying to find its way amongst its opponents in the SAC.

The Lady Raiders managed to sweep Hoke County High School during their two matches, blanking them in straight sets both times. Richmond also swept Purnell Swett High School, taking six of the seven sets played. The final win was a 3-2 victory over Seventy-First High School.

Larsen said she was “so thankful” that this senior class was able to play together one last time. In the spring when she had to tell athletes that sports were done because of the pandemic, she said it broke her heart. Admittedly, Larsen said she couldn’t handle telling any athlete that again, which is what made the 2020 volleyball season so special.

“Although this was not the perfect season, it was something they can always remember,” Larsen explained. “We learned to overcome the odds thrown at us and they were able to come together to rock that green and gold one more time. 

“I cannot thank the senior class enough for their leadership and positivity throughout this whole experience. They have been involved with our program for four years and have made an impact during their time.”

Larsen pointed to Anderson and Covington as a “force to be reckoned with” since they arrived at Richmond. Shed added that “numerous coaches have made comments about hating to see them on the other side of the net.”

Most importantly, Larsen has been proud of the way all of her players have leaned on one another to keep the intensity up on the court. 

“Taylor has battled through some injuries in previous years, but came back ready to fight,” Larsen said. “She always remained positive and has always been the best teammate any player could ask for. 

“Emy has seen her time in previous years but stepped up big for us as our libero. She kept us in many games with her digging and ability to cover the floor. Kelly and Shelly stepped up to the plate when needed in their senior year. They have waited and trained to earn their spots on the court.”

Richmond had finished third in the conference standings in each of the first two years that Larsen was the head coach. The lack of a non-conference schedule, coupled with a tough conference slate, saw Richmond miss the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4A state playoffs for the first time since 2013.

The Lady Raiders will graduate six players this year, which starts the next phase of rebuilding for Larsen and the program. Returning next season will be rising seniors Saniah Durham, Kierston Gibson and Swiney, along with junior Catherine Dennis and sophomore Christi Jacobs.

“We have yet another big turnover this year. The good news is we will have some returning varsity members and a whole junior varsity team that is coming off an awesome season,” Larsen commented. 

“I think we will have to configure a starting lineup again with all the younger girls that will be moved up, but I see potential out of a lot of the JV members to hopefully grow and develop to fulfill those roles. 

“We will take a break and get back to work the minute we are cleared to do so, but for now it is time to watch these girls embark on their next seasons and cheer them on,” she closed.

The complete All-SAC team is expected to be released once Pinecrest High School is either eliminated from or wins the 4A state playoffs.

Kyle Pillar

Three-time award-winning sports editor. Indiana University of Pennsylvania communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

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