Void of a dominant hitter, the North Johnston Panthers are using balance, scrappiness and low-mistake play to fashion together a strong volleyball season.
It’s a formula that has worked through 13 matches as North Johnston is 10-3 overall following a four-set home victory over Wilson Beddingfield (4-6) in Tuesday’s Eastern Plains Conference opener for both clubs.
The Panthers, with five sophomores on their varsity roster, had a brief blip in the second set, but swept the next two sets for a 25-20, 23-25, 25-20, 25-18 decision.
“We have been focusing on not creating our own errors,’’ said North Johnston veteran coach Nicole Davis. “We don’t have that one person we can always go to at the net. So we have to play smart and keep our errors down. For us, it’s not as much about getting kills as it is making sure we get balls back across the net and in play. We have improved every time we have played.’’
North Johnston didn’t win a match in the EPC in 2014, but ended that skein quickly this fall as the Panthers rallied from early deficits in both the third and fourth sets to topple the Bruins.
After dropping the first four points in the fourth set, North Johnston clawed back and led 17-13 before Shae Suttles stepped to the service stripe and reeled off six consecutive points to help the Panthers take charge for good. Suttles delivered a trio of aces during the decisive stretch, while teammate Morgan Foster contributed three kills.
While North Johnston might not have a high-caliber net presence, the Panthers do have plenty of options -- and they put them to good use against Wilson Beddingfield. Five different North players had five kills or more, led by Foster with nine. Also, the Panthers’ dive-at-everything backcourt kept several balls in play and limited the Bruins to just 12 total kills.
By the numbers
267: The victory total Davis has achieved during her successful 19-year tenure as North Johnston’s head coach. During that span, Davis has guided the Panthers to five regular season and six tournament conference championships.
19: North Johnston came through with 19 aces for the match, led by Kelly White with eight.
32: The Lady Panthers’ kill total, with Foster pacing the club with nine.
3: The number of North Johnston roster members with the name ‘Davis’ as the head coach is joined by her twin daughters, Barrett and Mary Catherine, on the team. The twins are both sophomores and key contributors.
“It’s a challenge,’’ Nicole Davis said of coaching her children. “They are part of a sophomore group that I have been coaching since we started the rec program in Kenly when they were in first grade. I’ve been with this group ever since, so we have an incentive to do well together.
“It’s a delicate balance between being a mom and a coach. I tell my kids that they have to work harder than everybody else to prove themselves. But it’s really been a joy. I’ve been blessed to spend this time with my children.’’
Three who mattered
Shae Suttles, North Johnston: In addition to serving during North’s key stretch in the fourth set, Suttles, a middle hitter, contributed six kills, five blocks and two aces.
Olivia Narron, North Johnston: Narron excelled both at the net (seven kills) and at the service line (three aces) as part of a well-rounded performance.
Mary Catherine Davis, North Johnston: The Panthers’ offense runs through Davis, a setter who has sharp leadership qualities despite being a 10th-grader. She is also North Johnston’s leadoff server in each set, and she pitched in with three aces Tuesday.