PILOT MOUNTAIN — East Surry volleyball has been one of the most consistent teams around in recent years in any sport.
Since moving to an all 1A conference in 2013, the Lady Cards boast an overall record of 119-28 as well as a 46-7 conference record. This is a trend that Coach Caleb Gilley expects to continue into the 2018 season.
“I’ve really been impressed with the whole group,” Gilley said concerning the team’s performance over the summer and into the first week of practice. “They’ve all exceeded my expectations and are working really, really hard and working together. It’s going to make some really hard decisions for me down the road.”
East is returning six players that played in at least half of the Cardinals’ sets last season. Notably absent from the 2018 roster are two girls that contributed to more than 50 percent of the team’s kills last season: Bethany Clayton and Sarah Marion. Marion was a 3-year varsity player and multi-time member of the Northwest 1A All-Conference Team, while Bethany was a 4-year varsity player who is beginning her freshman volleyball season at UNC-Charlotte.
“We’ve had to change some of the things we do,” said Gilley. “We don’t have anyone that will come in and replace what Bethany did. Bethany was probably the best player around here, maybe ever. Sarah was really good as well.”
Gilley is more focused on the season ahead than reliving the past, naming outside/middle hitters Allie Bruner, Morgan Smith, and Maggie Holt as key pieces of the Cardinal offense. All three girls are rising juniors and have been members of the varsity team since coming to East Surry High.
Bruner finished with just 30 kills and 92 attacks as a freshman, but jumped to 179 kills and 467 attacks last season. Her 2017 attack total was second only to Bethany Clayton. Holt, who spent most of her time as a middle hitter in her first two years, had 111 kills and 222 attacks as a freshman and 145 kills and 263 attacks as a sophomore. Holt also finished second on the team in total blocks (74) in 2016 and led the team in 2017 (82). Holt’s 82 total blocks tied for the most in conference last season.
Smith is making the jump to hitter, having played libero her first two years. Her 105 service aces not only led the team, but were the most in the conference 42. Smith also finished second in the conference in digs with 390.
The two returning seniors on the team are Maddie Payne and Jessica Clayton. Payne split time with Holt as middle hitter and was second on the team and fourth in the conference in blocks. Jessica Clayton was often the first player off the bench and took part in 86 of the Lady Cards’ 93 total sets. Her 269 service attempts were the most of any non-starter. Jessica also led the team in service percentage (94.4) with a minimum of 50 attempts.
Having star players has helped the Cardinals in the past, but what really makes an impact is their depth. Gilley said a lot of the girls have stepped up and that the team’s success will be a collaborative effort. He went on to discuss some of the returning players and how they’ve progressed.
“Ally McCraw was on JV last year and spent a little time on varsity. She is a very good setter and I’m expecting big things out of her,” Gilley said. “Jessica (Clayton) didn’t play a whole lot last year, and she had a really good summer and a really good first week of practice. Leah Hayes is all-around good player and good teammate.”
The pieces are there for a deep playoff run, but Gilley’s squad takes each match as it comes. The Lady Cards open the season on the road at Wilkes Central on August 13, and then return to Pilot Mountain for the home opener against North Surry. Playing the Lady Greyhounds early in the season has become a tradition in recent years that allows both powerhouse programs to do battle.
“I think Shane (Slate) and I have a similar mindset,” Gilley said. Our programs are always strong and this is a great way to test where we’re at early on. Then, we play again later in the season to see how we’ve progressed.”
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith