PILOT MOUNTAIN — East Surry’s volleyball program faced its biggest challenge in a long time last fall, as the Lady Cardinals found themselves missing seven key seniors from a team that had won 29 games and finished as state runners-up.
Much to the chagrin of their rivals in the Northwest 1A Conference, it became clear in the stretch run of the 2015 season that East Surry is not going away as a local volleyball power.
Playing with a relatively young roster that included five sophomores, a freshman, and just two seniors, the Lady Cardinals sustained some early growing pains and had just a 12-10 record after getting blanked in the Oct. 10 Rivals United Dig Pink showdown on their home floor.
From that point until East Surry’s season ended three weeks later, the Lady Cardinals found their stride and were the best team in the league. Five days after the Rivals United debacle, East Surry beat regular-season NW1A champ Mount Airy in straight sets on the Lady Bears’ Senior Night. The next week, the team swept aside Atkins and regular-season runner-up Bishop McGuinness in the first two rounds of the conference tournament, then downed Mount Airy in five sets to three-peat as Northwest Conference Tournament champions.
The Lady Cardinals ended their 2015 season with a strong run in the 1A state playoffs, beating North Stanly and Hiwassee Dam before falling at eventual West Region runner-up Rosman in the third round. The team’s overall record of 18-11 made Coach Caleb Gilley a stellar 107-36 in his five seasons as East Surry volleyball mentor.
He’ll be looking to pile on even more victories in 2016. This year’s Lady Cardinals will have to replace departed middle hitter Sydney Marion, who will be making her kills down the road for Surry Community College this season, but return six out of the team’s top eight players in kills, six out of seven in serve percentage, four of the top six in service aces, five of seven in blocks, and eight of 11 in digs.
The loss of Marion, who led last year’s team in kill percentage and blocks, and was third on the team in total kills, leaves a big void for the Lady Cardinals, but it’s one that the coach hopes will be filled by other players stepping up.
“I am absolutely pleased with what I’ve seen so far,” Gilley said following practice on Tuesday afternoon. “All of the kids are excited and they’re competing against against other in practice. A lot of the kids are back from last year and they are better players than they were.”
Among the key returnees are seniors Bryce Smith, Cameron Sloop and Kendall Beck, along with juniors Bethany Clayton, Alyssa Jessup and Sarah Marion.
Jessup, a 5’8” outside hitter, led East Surry in kills last season with 180, followed closely by Sloop with 175. In fact, every other player with a significant kill total except for the departed Sydney Marion is back. Clayton brings back her attack against that led to 155 kills last year, along with 5’9” opposite hitter Sarah Marion (150) and 5’10” middle hitter Beck (78).
Setting up all of that returning offense is Clayton, the 5’10” junior who racked up 673 assists last season with only 32 errors, for a 95.5 percent success rate. She is also part of a strong defense that averaged 65.3 digs per match in 2015, with Clayton third on the team with 239. Smith, the team’s 5’6” libero, led the Lady Cardinals with 575 digs, followed by Sloop, a 5’9” opposite hitter, with 251.
Rounding out the roster are 5’8” senior defensive specialist Elise Hayes, 5’9” junior middle hitter Tara Beck, 5’7” junior defensive specialist Chelsea Tucker, and two freshmen, 5’7” Morgan Smith and 5’11” Maggie Holt.
As far as who will replace Sydney Marion and fellow departed senior Hayley Whitaker in the lineup, Gilley said that has not yet been determined.
“We have a couple of different people competing,” he said. “Today is just day two, and we’re still seeing what we have.”
He did say that he was hopeful that the Lady Cardinals would once again compete for the conference title, although the league promises to be very tough once again.
“It’s a goal of ours to compete for the conference title every year,” he said. “I know Mount Airy will be very tough this year.”
East Surry opens its 2016 season on Aug. 15 at Ashe County. The team’s home opener will be a strong early litmus test of where East Surry stands early in the season, as they will be hosting defending 1A state champion Alleghany High School.
East Surry Varsity Volleyball Roster
2 Bethany Clayton S, OH Jr. 5-10
4 Cameron Sloop OH, OPP Sr. 5-9
5 Bryce Smith L Sr. 5-6
8 Alyssa Jessup OH Jr. 5-8
9 Chelsea Tucker DS Jr. 5-7
10 Elise Hayes DS Sr. 5-8
11 Kendall Beck MH Sr. 5-10
12 Sarah Marion OPP Jr. 5-9
14 Tara Beck MH, OPP Jr. 5-9
Maggie Holt MH Fr. 5-11
Morgan Smith L, S Fr. 5-7
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.