Volleyball season in full swing

by Aaron Garcia and C. Jemal Horton

Charlotte Latin coach Suzie Pignetti is attempting to lead the Hawks to their eighth consecutive private-school state championship this fall. Tim Steadman/SCW photo

While the kickoff to the football season is grabbing most of the attention this week, the fall high school sports slate officially began Aug. 15, when area volleyball teams started their regular seasons. And as is often the case in south Charlotte, there are several teams gearing up for what should be promising seasons complete with realistic championship aspirations.

Many of the squads, including Charlotte Catholic and Charlotte Latin, are starting their seasons while looking to replace substantial star power from a season ago. But according to Charlotte Latin coach Suzie Pignetti, opening the season before the school year starts has allowed her team to focus on what needs to be done.

“I think it’s a plus to be able to do that,” said Pignetti. “You get a lot accomplished before the first day of class, that’s for sure.”

Latin, winner of the last seven N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A titles, starts the season with the unenviable task of replacing all-state setter Delaney Dalton, who graduated in June. The Hawks, however, return several key members of last year’s title run, giving Pignetti a strong nucleus to help transition in the new players. Juniors Eve Davis and Emma Price, along with senior Amma Okwara, have been named captains and “are bringing the younger ones along,” said Pignetti. “That’s very helpful.”

Sophomore Kelly Williams returns to the outside hitter spot, while junior Ashley Finke, who also is a soccer standout, should play a vital role as the Hawks’ libero.

“I haven’t had many players that have been able to not play volleyball year-round and do the things she’s able to do,” said Pignetti of Finke. “Giver her credit, that shows what kind of athlete she is.”

So far, Pignetti said she’s liked what she’s seen from this year’s Hawks.

“We’ve had some scrimmages, and we’ve done pretty well,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong – there’s always room for improvement.”

Charlotte Latin was slated to open its season with four matches this week, including contests against Northside Christian Academy on Aug. 16, Covenant Day on Aug. 18, High Point Christian on Friday, Aug. 19, and Asheville Christian on Saturday, Aug. 20.

But the Hawks won’t be able to simply stroll to their eighth consecutive state title untested. Rival Charlotte Country Day won its first 12 matches last season before finishing with a 19-6 overall record. This year, the Bucs return junior libero/outside hitter Mattie Newson and junior setter Megan Lewis. They also welcome talented newcomers Taylor Portland (freshman outside hitter) and Katharine Franz (freshman middle hitter).

“We are incredibly young,” Bucs coach Brian Rosen said. “We don’t have any seniors, but we’ve got a great group of juniors.”

The Bucs began their season with a 3-0 win over Greensboro Day on Aug. 15. They were slated to travel to Weddington on Aug. 16 and Forsyth Country Day on Saturday, Aug. 20.

In public-school action, Charlotte Catholic has never lost a match in the MEGA 7 3A/4A conference and finished last season with a 28-3 record, advancing all the way to the Class 3A state quarterfinals. This year, coach Tim Leary’s Cougars will look to replace four-year all-conference member Kelsey Newman, which won’t be easy.

“That’s a big vacuum to fill,” Leary said.

This season the Cougars will feature nine sophomores and a freshman in their regular rotation but should benefit from the presence of experienced seniors in outside hitter Taylor Larsen and middle hitter Anna Schweihs, as well as seasoned sophomores Molly Lindway (setter) and Kaitlyn Massey (outside hitter).

“We have a couple of young kids in key positions, but they’re kids that are very talented for their age,” Leary noted.

Catholic was scheduled to open play against a pair of Class 4A title hopefuls in Providence (Aug. 16) and Myers Park (Aug. 18) before travelling to Waxhaw Marvin Ridge on Saturday, Aug. 20, to face the Mavs and the Butler Bulldogs in a three-team match.

Providence won a regional championship last year, en route to a 27-4 record. Although the Panthers fell to Apex in the state title match, they are expected to be strong once again this season. One major reason for that outlook is towering Casey Rieger, who won Southwestern 4A conference Player of the Year honors as a sophomore in 2010. Another Panther, 6-foot senior Megan Edwards, was named to the all-conference squad.

Ardrey Kell, which reached the Class 4A quarterfinals, also began play this week. The Knights opened the season on Aug. 16 at Concord’s Hickory Ridge High before returning to its Ballantyne location to host Hopewell on Friday, Aug. 19.

Senior middle blocker Emma Vail, junior middle blocker/outside hitter Caitlin Watkins and junior libero Sarah Wyczawski – all all-conference selections last season – return to lead a strong corps of Knights. But the squad also will benefit from the addition of junior outside hitter Rachel Eppley, a transfer who registered 533 digs and 233 kills while earning All-I-MECK 4A conference accolades for a strong Hopewell team a year ago.

In one of south Charlotte’s most anticipated early-season matches, the Knights, who finished last season with a 20-8 record, will host Charlotte Catholic on Tuesday, Aug. 23.

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