by Denny Seitz
Kayla Summer called it a surreal moment, a snapshot frozen forever in her mind. As the SouthLake Christian junior volleyball player’s hard spike hit the ground in front of a diving Asheville Christian player last Saturday, clinching the school’s first team state championship, a wave of emotion followed.
“Things sort of froze for a second, then it was like, ‘Wow. We’re state champions,’” said Summer, who helped the Eagles to a 25-14, 25-23, 24-26, 25-23 victory, avenging a loss to the Lions just a month earlier.
The victory secured the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 2A title. It also capped a 25-5 campaign for the Eagles, who dominated many of their opponents during the season. Head coach Rachel Noreika said the players on the team knew they had the talent to win a state championship, but that their response in each of the five losses during the season made the ultimate difference.
“Every loss was absolutely critical to our success,” Noreika said. “We learned so much from each one; the importance of team, importance of finishing every single point. All five times we lost, we learned from it and got better.”
Noreika tweaked her lineup several times during the season, in moves that forced some players out of their comfort zone, but into better positions to help the team. The players didn’t complain, opting instead to listen to Noreika, a former star player at Liberty University and one-time professional volleyball player.
“We just had to trust the coach,” said Summer, who earned all-conference honors for the second straight season and joined fellow junior Katie Schoenrock on the all-state team. “We went with it, whatever she told us.”
Senior setter Meghan Bentley also earned all-conference honors for the Eagles, who return all but two players next season. Fellow senior Christina Ford played a pivotal role as a defensive specialist this season, Noreika said.
“I was so happy for the two seniors,” Noreika said. “They just led by example. People thought we had this dream team last season, with four seniors who were very good players. But we came up short. Not this year.”
The Eagles were 23-3 in 2009, losing in the state semifinals for the third straight season. The team was so close to being a champion, but was missing something.
Then, Schoenrock arrived. The 5-foot-9 outside hitter enrolled at SouthLake after her family moved to Huntersville from Cary, N.C.
“She was the missing piece to the puzzle,” Noreika said.
Now, Schoenrock and the 5-foot-10 Summer form the nucleus of next year’s team, along with fellow starters Olivia Loeffler, a freshman, and sophomore Kelsey Bundy. Add junior libero Hannah Croom, junior defensive specialist Molly Crawford and 6-foot sophomore outside hitter Amanda Nerness to the mix and it’s easy to understand Noreika’s optimism for next season.
“I’m excited about the possibilities, and for the girls,” Noreika said.
The fifth-year Eagles coach laughs aloud, then replays key memories of the season in her head: “I see the girls in practice, almost in tears because of how hard I’m pushing them, early in the season. I see the celebration at the end. Now they know what it’s like to take those goals and make them happen, take the dreams and make them come true. They realize the tears and hard work were worth it. I see their faces, on Saturday, when they all jumped up in the air after that last point. Wow.”