The final day of Sarah Lankford’s memorable athletic career at Mount Airy High School was almost perfect.
After a four-year career that included four All-Conference honors and two Northwest 1A Conference Player of the Year citations, the senior walked off the court at the Dean E. Smith Center on the afternoon of March 11 as a state champion, something she had always dreamed of achieving.
That it happened in basketball, rather than in her first love of volleyball, was just a minor detail.
“I always wanted to win a state championship in volleyball,” she said. “Even though I didn’t get to succeed in that goal, winning a state championship in basketball was very nice. I would say that just getting to spend my last four years being a Mount Airy Bear was the most special part.”
There was no question that Lankford, who rewrote the MAHS record book for assists during her four-year tenure as a fixture in the Lady Bears’ volleyball lineup, would be going somewhere to continue her athletic career if she chose. A number of area colleges and universities pursued her services, and on Monday afternoon, Lankford announced that she would play for Presbyterian College this fall.
Presbyterian, a member of the NCAA Division I Big South Conference, struggled to a 5-26 season last fall, the kind of season that suggests that opportunity awaits for a talented newcomer. And indeed, the Blue Hose’s coaching staff has asked Lankford to work out at a variety of different positions for the upcoming season.
“They told me I should work on my positions everywhere, be able to be any type of player,” she said. “My goal is to work hard and be able to step in on the court.
“I chose (Presbyterian) not just for volleyball, but because they have an outstanding pharmacy school. I considered Campbell, and also got accepted into UNC-Chapel Hill, but Presbyterian stood out the most.”
Although the state title in basketball was certainly a highlight for Lankford, it was on the volleyball court where she was the boss, and she said the highlight of her athletic career came in her junior year, when the Lady Bears came calling at East Surry on September 22, 2015. The Lady Cardinals were the defending conference champions and had been to the state finals the previous season, and whoever won this match would likely win the NW1A for that season. East Surry won the first set, but Mount Airy grinded out narrow wins in set two and three and then won the fourth by six points. It was the first victory for the Lady Bears over East since 2011.
Lankford had 36 assists and seven kills that day, and Mount Airy went on to win the conference with an overall league mark of 10-1.
As a team, the Lady Bears ascended from a 6-19 record in Lankford’s freshman season to 12-14 and a return to the 1A state playoffs in her sophomore year. Mount Airy then went 21-6 in her junior year and 23-6 this past fall, reaching the third round of the playoffs both seasons.
By the time her career was finished, she held the school record for career assists (2,940), the single-season mark (892), the single-match mark (52, on September 27, 2014 against Surry Central), and the single-set mark of 15. In addition to the assists, she also had 299 service aces, 780 digs and 371 kills in her career. She was named team MVP in both her junior and senior seasons.
When the Lady Bears lost to South Stanly in the third round of the state volleyball playoffs last fall, it seemed like the upcoming basketball season would just be a footnote to Lankford’s athletic career at Mount Airy. She spent the entire season as the first player off the bench, and had many strong games as the Lady Bears piled up victory after victory. However, it soon became clear this team could be more than just another very good team that was a notch below the state’s best — a rut Mount Airy had been for several seasons.
The Lady Bears overcame strong challenges from Atkins to win the conference regular-season and tournament titles. Lankford had a dozen rebounds and was a major factor in the Lady Bears’ 57-53 win in the tournament championship. As Mount Airy played more and more physical teams in the postseason, Lankford’s rebounding skills — she led the team in rebounds per 32 minutes — played a key role. In the fourth quarter of the West Regional final against Avery County, Coach Angela Mayfield left her on the floor for the final 10 minutes of the game as the Lady Bears came from a point down to win by 11, and then she had nine points and seven rebounds in less than 20 minutes of game action in the state finals against Pamlico.
Lankford finally had her ring, and she’d done her part to make the dream a reality.
“I knew it was getting near to the end of my career here, and I just wanted to give it my all, because I knew I was never going to get another chance,” she said.
Going to Presbyterian will bring her volleyball career full circle. As she did at Mount Airy, she will be trying to help a team rise from mediocrity to contention. But she’ll never forget where she came from.
“I’m excited, and even though graduation is coming up, I’ll always be a Bear,” she said.