It is not uncommon for a college sports team to try entertain its fans by scheduling the first home game against a soft opponent. But when the Sandhills CC volleyball team opens the season at Heins Gymnasium on Wednesday evening their opposite number will be a Division II Wake Tech team that won 26 games a year ago and has averaged 27 per year over the last five.
The action gets underway at 6 p.m. on Student Night.
"Wake has always been a well-rounded program," says Alicia Riggan who is 144-74 going into her ninth season as the head coach of the Lady Flyers. "They play a fast tempo offense and that's why I always like to play them right out of the gate. I think it helps set the bar."
Ten newcomers, including seven that earned all-conference honors with their respective high school teams, join four starters coming back from last year's squad that finished with a record of 19-9. The Flyers finished strong winning five matches in a row before the season ended with a five-set loss to Patrick Henry CC in the championship match of the Region X conference tournament.
The returnees include 5-11 middle hitter Paige Garner, 5-8 middle/outside hitter Morgan McCarthy, 5-4 libero Erica Groff and 5-3 setter, Leah Salzwedel. Garner was a first team all-region selection and led the team in kills and blocks. A strong player anywhere in the rotation, McCarthy ranked second in both categories and was one of the leaders in service aces. She was a second team all-region pick.
Groff also earned second team honors while leading the team in digs, including 49 in the Region X tournament semi-final victory over Davidson. Salzwedel replaced the injured Cheyenne Brown at setter about midway through last season. She finished second on the team in assists and first in service aces.
"They are showing leadership to the freshmen by leading by example," Riggan says of the quartet. "We couldn't be happier with them and the freshmen are coming in and stepping up to the plate. The energy is exciting. I get excited because we are the tallest we've been."
In addition to 6-1 Cayce Cleghorn (Gray Stone), Jordan Ward (North Moore), Tee'Ashia Lilly (North Moore)and Catherine Carricker (Mount Pleasant) are all 5-11. The other outside and right side hitters include 5-8 Kaitlyn Lisenby (West Montgomery), 5-9 Chelsea Green (West Stanly), 5-8 Rachael Mashburn (Union Pines) and 5-7 Brooke Sayers (Pinecrest). Kiana Brown (North Moore), 5-6, sister of Cheyenne, has been seeing action at outside hitter and defensive specialist.
Riggan has been using a 6-2 offensive formation (two setters with one rotated out when they move to front row). Freshman Abby Wallace (Pinecrest), 5-4, has been working with Salzwedel in that alignment.
"Our outside players have taken turns stepping up and shining," Riggan says. "Most of them can play all the way around. Rachel and Brooke have really shown a lot of leadership. I think that comes from them being captains of their high school teams.
Mashburn, a lefty swinger like former Union Pines and Lady Flyer Tiffany Hicks, who was the 2015 Region X Player of the Year, is feeling good about how her new team performed in scrimmages against some strong competition last week.
"We're all friends," she says of her teammates. It's nice to be able to get advice from the sophomores and I think that our chemistry is really good for only being together for a short time."
The only loss in 29 matches over two years by Patrick Henry in the eight-team Region X conference was the one to the Flyers in last year's tournament. The Flyers will be out to end the reign of the team from Martinsville, Va.
"We have really high goals," Groff says. "We have more talent and skill this year and I really feel our height is going to give us an advantage.
"We expect to win the region championship and then move on to the district and nationals."
An interesting schedule includes a trip to New York City for five matches on September 2 and 3. Riggan will again be assisted by coaches Kristin Hylton and Ashleigh McKenzie. Student assistant and videographer Jacob Marley is also back. Two-time all-conference setter Cheyenne Brown is an addition to the staff as a student assistant coach.