by Staff Writer
by Cliff Mehrtens
The SouthLake Christian Academy volleyball team is moving up the ladder with impressive credentials.
The Eagles, who won the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association’s 2A championship last year, are switching to the 3A classification this season. The strength of competition will improve.
That’s fine with SouthLake Christian, which had reached the 2A semifinals three consecutive seasons before last year’s dramatic run to the state title.
“At a small Christian school, sometimes athletes get in the mentality that they’re not as good just because their name isn’t as big or their school isn’t big,” SouthLake coach Rachel Noreika said. “I think winning on a bigger scale validated what we’re doing.”
But, last year’s glory guarantees nothing for the upcoming season.
“It doesn’t put any pressure on me,” said Noreika, who is in her sixth season leading the program. “I’ve been trying to reiterate to the girls that there’s no pressure. We’re (Class) 3A now, and we are still the underdog.”
The Eagles may be underdogs, but they’re far from under-stocked.
Returning are several key contributors from the championship squad, including outside hitter Katie Schoenrock and middle hitter Kayla Summer.
Both were all-state selections last year. Both are seniors. Both are 5 foot 10. Both sharpened skills playing club volleyball during the summer. And, they learned that winning is often more about the process.
Last year, SouthLake started slowly. The players persevered, didn’t panic or waver from Noreika’s plan, and they ended up as champions.
“It definitely gave us more confidence,” Summer said. “Not only do we know we might not start off as strong as you want to, but you work through the challenges and losses to make a great ending.”
“If you had asked me at the beginning of last season, I would have said, ‘We’re not going to be a good team.’ We didn’t even win the conference title, but we grew a lot during the season.”
The Eagles were 25-5 last season. Schoenrock, a force at the net, had 329 kills, 149 digs, 83 aces and 24 blocks. She capped the season with a 37-kill performance in the championship match.
Schoenrock was all-state as a junior and sophomore.
Summer, a middle hitter, also was a strong net presence with 259 kills and 181 digs last season.
Schoenrock said the state title does raise expectations, but she likes the challenge it presents to the Eagles.
“I guess there’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “Everyone’s expecting (good play), and we have four seniors. It’s a big year, but it’s kind of exciting to have all that pressure on us. We have a really young team, so we can grow a lot.”
SouthLake has several experienced players who will ensure that opponents can’t key solely on Summer and Schoenrock.
Returing are seniors Hannah Croom and Molly Crawford, and juniors Kelsey Bundy and Amanda Nerness. Sophomore Katie McGuire should be a solid contributor, and freshmen Dakoda Hawkins and Lucy Iannarino are battling for the setter spot.
“I think we have maybe the strongest offensive team we’ve ever had,” Noreika said. “It allows us to have more options on the floor all the time. Last year, we relied heavily on Kayla and Katie for our offense. This year, we have girls with more experience who will see more sets. That takes some pressure off Kayla and Katie.”
The Eagles defense should be in good shape, too.
Olivia Loeffler, who had 149 digs as a freshman last year and took over the libero position midway through the season, anchors the defense.
“Olivia has gotten so much better,” Noreika said. “We switched her to libero, and that’s where she should be. If she can stay strong and healthy, I truly believe she’ll be playing at the next level.”
Croom returns as a defensive specialist, and newcomer Kayla Sandlin, a junior, also will help on defense.
Jumping to 3A means the path to a championship likely will pass through powers Charlotte Latin (seven-time defending state champion) and Cary Academy.
“We have (opponents) now that have statewide respect,” Noreika said. “It’s a new challenge. Our goals are still the same, our expectations are still high. They just know they have to work harder. Now, instead of anyone taking us for granted, they’re going to give us their best game.
“The things that got us to win last year aren’t going to change. Other teams are still going to be bigger than us. They’re still going to have players that play only volleyball, and we have some girls playing three other sports at school.”
The tougher competition won’t seem as daunting if the Eagles think back to last season, when things weren’t always going well. But sticking with the plan proved to them that hard work and togetherness can net a huge prize.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Noreika said. “But like I told the girls, I’m not worried about being our best right now. I fully expect us to get better every day. Then, when it becomes playoff time, we’ll show what we have.
“Nothing’s going to be handed to us.”