Winning seven straight N.C. High School Athletic Association volleyball championships may make it seem like it was a breeze last season for Cardinal Gibbons. But the Crusaders, despite not losing to an in-state team since 2012, were tested.
Three teams made a run at Gibbons last year: J.H. Rose in the 4A East final, Broughton in the East semis and North Raleigh Christian – the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A champ – in the regular season.
Rose, Broughton and Gibbons are all reloading this year.
South Granville is the defending NCHSAA 2A champ while Princeton was 1A runner-up. Rose, Cedar Ridge (3A), Carrboro (2A) and Roxboro Community (1A) were East final runners-up.
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Broughton (22-1) is led by Kalee Vanderhorst (364 kills), Holli Smith and Grace Youngblood. Runner-up Leesville Road (18-3) has Sydney Wilson (229 kills), Heritage (15-9) returns libero Najeel Range (415 digs) and Sanderson (13-8) has Drew James and Sydney Koch.
Wakefield’s Ade Owkoniran (262 kills) and Erin McEney (430 assists) and Millbrook’s Taylor Rebne (311 digs) are some of the league’s top players.
Greater Neuse 4A
West Johnston won the league behind player of the year Abby Barbour. Harnett Central’s Cambry Huber (208 kills), Garner’s Shaylynn Hall (206 kills) and Knightdale’s Lainey Anderson (784 assists) are other players to watch.
Gibbons (20-3) is still No. 1 in the N&O rankings until someone stops them, but this could be a rebuilding year. Avery Bugg, Joya Libbus and Molly Dalton lead the next crop of players.
Person’s Courtney Jackson (202 kills) and East Chapel Hill’s Zoe Dinkins (160 blocks) are back. Jordan (16-7) was league runner-up.
Southwest Wake 4A
Panther Creek (19-5) welcomse back all-conference players Emily Maggio (263 digs) and Alani Alderman (375 assists). Fuquay-Varina (20-4) returns middle blocker Deja Byrd.
Green Hope (15-8) brings hitters Erin Boone and Chloe Ruffieux and Apex (16-7) brings back most of its team including Madeline Rudd (212 kills) and Sunday Peoples (810 assists)
Athens Drive’s Allison Lake and Claire Campbell, Middle Creek’s Emily Durham (216 kills) and Elise Herring (479 assists) and Holly Springs’ Kayla Arthur (114 blocks) are some of the SWAC’s top players.
Eastern Carolina 4A/3A
J.H. Rose (23-2) returns Caroline Kuhn (217 kills), Gabrielle Greene and Lauren Phillips (350 assists). D.H. Conley (19-3) returns Samantha Dunn, Caitlyn Smirne and Rachel Bewick, and Meghan Bewick. South Central (11-6) has leading hitter Jasmine Sanders.
C.B. Aycock’s Arlanda Faulkner (213 kills, 257 assists) is one of the league’s top players.
Overhills (17-9-1) is led by setter Moana Reid (539 assists), libero Autumn McLoud (504 digs) and blockers Jasmine Swedenburg (219 blocks) and Katy Hensley (181).
Pinecrest (18-9), coached by 700-win club coach Barbara Foxx, is led by Abbey Wallace.
Big 8 3A
Cedar Ridge (24-4), the 3A East runner-up to Asheboro, has Alexis Dumain (427 assists) and Liliana Henry (360) as setters and Karsen Lee (392 digs) at libero.
Orange (15-10) is led by setters Caroline Compton (499 assists) and Julia Lovingood (344) and libero Jordan Lloyd (338 digs). J.F. Webb (14-8) is led by Ashley Owen (466 digs).
Chapel Hill’s Shea Golden (313 kills) and Katie Huge (321 assists) lead the way for the Tigers (13-11) while Northern Vance’s Megan Andrews (259 kills, 304 digs) and Autumn Julian (300 assists) lead the Vikings (8-11).
Two Rivers 3A
Conference regular-season champ Corinth Holders has hitter Jamie Turner (196 kills), tournament champ Cleveland (22-4) has Jenna Myer (497 assists) and Triton (18-9) has its entire roster back after advancing to the fourth round. South Johnston (18-9) is led by Reagan Byrd.
Cape Fear Valley champ Lee County (20-5) made it to the fourth round thanks to Mackenzie Hulsey (386 assists). Union Pines’ Eliza Athans (317 assists) leads the way for the Vikings (15-11).
Big East champ Hunt (18-7) returns hitter Calise Parrott.
Eastern Plains 2A
Co-champs Farmville Central (17-2) and North Pitt (20-5) are hoping to make it past the second round this year. Farmville returns co-captain Courteney Pitt while North Pitt has Casandra Watson (205 kills).
Northern Carolina 2A
South Granville (30-3) is loaded with top hitters Jenna Pitzer (387 kills, 260 digs), Megan Fuhr (360 kills) and Sarah Dickerson (290 kills).
Bunn (15-8) returns co-captain Erin Collier. Franklinton (15-10) has an up-and-coming team with Nia Richardson (338 assists, 286 digs) and Nikki Venelson (606 digs).
Carrboro (27-3) was the 2A East runner-up and is led by UNC recruit Destiny Cox (332 kills), senior Grace Maggiore (440 assists) and junior Sarah Montross (255 assists).
Goldsboro hopes to improve with Becka Pittard (253 kills) and Matti Rose Lyon (267 assists).
North Central Athletic 1A
Roxboro Community (26-1) has a solid nucleus with Payton Gentry (196 kills) and Mackenzi Thornburg (576 assists).
Franklin Academy (20-5) returns Joy Rhodes (210 kills) and Caitlyn Paeplow (388 assists). Voyager Academy (22-5) is led by Hayley Schadt.
Princeton (27-2), which won it all in 2014 and was second last year, has seniors Daisy Eklund (343 kills) and Beth Braswell (629 assists)
Louisburg (25-2) brings back Journee Hatsfield (536 assists) and leading hitters Whitney Bolton and Summer Phillips. Granville Central’s Caitlynn Taylor (538 assists) also returns.
North Raleigh Christian (28-2) has all-state players Kincey Smith and Casey Justus returning as well as Faith Murray (435 assists). Ravenscroft (18-11) returns Caroline Hall (252 kills) and Paige Gordon (550 assists).
Cary Academy returns Kate Hampton (288 kills, 573 digs) and Wake Christian brings back Mackenzie Calton (79 blocks) and Lauren Tomasulo (454 digs).
Grace Christian Raleigh (20-4) and Cary Christian (17-6) will compete for the Eastern Plains Independent Conference title along with Carolina Friends, led by all-state player Hadden LaGarde
Cresset Christian (23-7) is a 1A title threat. Kerr-Vance’s Kassidy Dickerson, Oakwood School’s Laura Bauer (407 assists) and Ali Reeg and Cape Fear Christian’s Kyrissa Cumbie each made the 1A all-state team.
Preseason top 25
1. Cardinal Gibbons
3. South Granville
4. J.H. Rose
8. Leesville Road
9. Panther Creek
10. D.H. Conley
13. Roxboro Community
16. Cedar Ridge
17. Lee County
24. South Johnston