Cardinal Gibbons’ entry into 4A makes waves in every sport, but none more so than volleyball. The Crusaders have won the N.C. High School Athletic Association title every year but one since 2005.
Some of those championship games were blowouts, but things will be more challenging for Gibbons – even in its own conference.
East Chapel Hill is the returning PAC-6 champ. Riverside, Person and Jordan each have multiple state championships in their program history.
For this year, Gibbons has three of last year’s top players returning. The Crusaders should be the 4A state favorite on arrival.
Last year’s N&O top 15
1. Cardinal Gibbons (27-0): The Crusaders’ 12 returning players are led by James Madison recruit Briley Brind’Amour, the NCHSAA 3A title MVP. Setter Tori Dozier is an N.C. State recruit, libero Mia Fradenburg has committed to North Carolina and hitter Emma Longley is going to Appalachian State.
2. Broughton (20-1): Coach Jim Freeman’s team will make a run at Gibbons. Returning N&O All-Metro players Katja Ehlers (309 kills) and Kati Smith (427 assists) will be joined by Tiana Butler and Kalee Vanderhorst, a transfer from Greenville’s D.H. Conley who had 380 kills last year.
3. Princeton (24-4): A wild postseason ride landed the Bulldogs with the NCHSAA 1A championship. Seniors Taylor Carroll (229 kills, 125 digs) and Hailey Wood (61 aces) are the top returners.
4. Lee County (28-2): The 3A East runner-up Yellow Jackets came out of nowhere last season to go undefeated in the regular season. They lost in conference and state tournament. Seniors Ally Davis (221 kills, 95 aces) and Tatiana Santini (230 digs, 63 aces) lead the way along with junior Khaira Bolden (146 kills).
5. South Granville (28-4): The NCHSAA 2A runner-ups’ fortunes center on senior setter Annie Preddy, who assisted on a whopping 1,018 points (10.3 assists per set). With Preddy and three of last year’s top four hitters – Megan Fuhr (300 kills), Jenna Pitzer (295), Sarah Dickerson (229), South Granville could make a second straight run to the state championship finals.
6. Carrboro (26-2): The 2A East runner-ups are loaded, returning nine of its 10 leaders in kills, assists, digs and blocks. Tops are juniors Fiona McGuire (68 blocks, 115 kills) and Grace Maggiore (434 assists), and sophomores Destiny Cox (228 kills, 192 digs) and Emma Fritsch (109 kills).
7. Cedar Ridge (20-7): The Red Wolves lost to Gibbons in the fourth round a year ago and look strong again. Courtney Eckmann, blocks leader Asha Barnes and Karsen Lee (257 digs) are back.
8. East Chapel Hill (18-9): The Wildcats bring back all-PAC-6 setter Mo Rooker to help set up middle hitters Grayson Walter and Charlotte van Houtven — the conference’s No. 1 and No. 3 leaders in blocks last year.
9. Wake Christian (30-7): The Bulldogs had their best season, reaching the NCISAA 3A semifinals. Much talent returns in sophomore Lauren Tomasulo (420 digs), junior Marley Wilson (213 kills), senior Grace Bunn (100 kills) and junior Marley Wilson (70 blocks).
10. Green Hope (17-5): The Falcons return a solid core led by senior middle blocker Allison O’Connor (162 kills, 48 blocks) and hitter Abby Kott (153 kills). Alexis Chaize and Allie Winiecki also return.
11. North Raleigh Christian (22-7): The Knights return a lot of youth to their attacking core and to the setter position. Faith Murray recorded a team-high 336 assists. Senior Christa Wilson is a N.C. A&T recruit.
12. Apex (17-8): The Cougars were hit hard by graduation but do return seniors Jenna Dalbo, Western Carolina recruit Abigail Veit (74 kills in 17 games) and Breanna Andrea (85 kills). Junior Sunday Peoples led the team with 368 assists and sophomore Alyssa Hansen had a team-high 100 blocks.
13. Roxboro Community (23-1): Garrison Bowes (232 kills) and Mackenzi Thornburg (472 assists, 131 aces) are back for the Bulldogs, which won the NCAC before falling in the NCHSAA 1A third round.
14. Heritage (17-8): Hitter Hannah Mildes and setter Ellie Lupton (671 assists) return for the Huskies.
15. Middle Creek (15-7): Second-year coach Adrienne Core will welcome back seniors Sydney Sozio and Samantha Smith and junior Emily Durham.
Other teams to watch
Athens Drive (11-12): Raquel Rooney is a UNC Wilmington recruit – in beach volleyball. She had 112 kills, tops among returners. Allison Lake added 110. Senior Sydney Yount returns as the team’s top defensive player (116 digs).
Clayton (11-9): Marlon Lee’s Comets have almost all their nucleus back. Senior Megan Homestead will be on the varsity squad for her fourth season, while junior libero Bailey Perdue is another key leader.
Cleveland (16-7): The Rams return three key seniors in middle hitter Alexis Ivey and outside hitters Wallie Driggers and Hannah Neville.
Franklin Academy (15-9): Leading hitter Joy Rhodes (166 kills) is a junior.
Fuquay-Varina (16-7): The Bengals are led by Sonnendecker twins Morgan (305 kills, 71 aces) and Maddie (237 kills). Kat Ellett, a senior, had a team-high 85 blocks.
J.F. Webb (15-8): Warriors only graduated two players from last year’s surprise success story.
Jordan (13-9): The Falcons will be led by all-conference selections Emma Taylor at outside hitter and Rose Gunn as a setter.
Knightdale (13-12): Most of the Greater Neuse River Conference champs are back, including middle blocker Heaven Jarrell and outside hitter Nia Singletary.
Ravenscroft (20-9): The Ravens gave up just 30 sets en route to NCISAA 3A quarterfinals. Junior Caroline Hall had 294 digs and sophomore Paige Gordon had 778 assists.
Riverside (16-7): The Pirates bring back two of the PAC-6 Conference’s best in Rachel Kallianos (385 kills, 267 digs) and Aminata Johnson (111 blocks).
South Johnston (17-8): Senior setter McKinley Johnson is quick to the ball and that senior outside hitter Lily Allen has improved. Seniors Emma Blackman and Makayla Tart return in the middle and Reagan Byrd is back at libero.
Southeast Raleigh (12-11): Seniors right-side hitter Kiara Marsh and setter Tyra Burt lead the Bulldog returnees according to new coach Tammy Lackey. Junior libero Faith Lackey, the coach’s daughter, is another big weapon.
Triton (17-7): Led by 20-year coach Wendy Gaines, the Hawks have won 14 straight conference titles. This year the Hawks have no senior. Leanna Parker is the setter, Annie Tyndall the libero and Taylor Gainey a strong middle hitter.
Voyager Academy (21-4): The Vikings all but one player back, led by senior Megan Harris (316 kills)
Wake Forest (12-11): Cougars will return senior Chelsey Cunningham, senior Hannah Harris, sophomore libero Gabby Richards and junior middle blocker Piper Townsend.
Wakefield (13-7): Wolverines bring back Erin McEneny (279 assist), Gentry Benda, junior Brynn Carrick (247 digs) and sophomore Ade Owkoniran (53 blocks).
Jessika Morgan and Elliot Warnock contributed.
Players to watch
Maylnn Clark, Holly Springs
101 kills, 113 blocks
Caitlyn Della, Panther Creek
Wake Forest recruit.
Meghan Gasper, Leesville Road
339 assists for 13-7 Pride.
Casey Goodwin, Person
Lauren Grodi, Harnett Central
568 assists for 15-8 Trojans.
Kate Hampton, Cary Academy
363 digs for 8-15 Chargers.
Alexis Hollis, Northwood
339 digs for 7-12 Chargers.
Paige Irvin, Raleigh Charter
Top hitter for 11-8 Phoenix.
Andie McKinnon, Orange
208 kills for 8-13 Panthers.
Larkin Staley, Southern Lee
330 digs for 7-11 Cavaliers.
Fallon Stevens, Sanderson
315 assists for 4-14 Spartans.
Kristen Senter, Franklinton
208 digs for 18-6 Red Rams.
Haley Marshall, Louisburg
251 assists for 24-4 Warriors.