HICKORY, N.C. — With its largest roster ever, the Catawba Valley Community College volleyball program chases its seventh-straight Region X regular-season and tournament championship this fall.
Shannon Hudson enters her 10th season as the head coach of the Red Hawks volleyball program and has high hopes for this year's squad.
"This is the best group coming in that we've ever had," Hudson said. "You could see it right when we got to New York for preseason training. They are just really athletic. They are in shape — probably more than any team we've had in the past. They were ready to hit the floor running. We are really excited about the talent level we have this year."
A total of 21 players from three different states, including the first-ever Oregon signee, make up this fall's record-setting Red Hawk volleyball roster.
"Twenty-one is a crazy number, but it's not unheard of," Hudson said. "A lot of the top teams in the country have 21-person or 22-person rosters. It's made practice super competitive. They are pushing each other. They are making each other better. We think that's one of the reasons we were so successful a few years ago when we had a roster of 17. The 'A' team pushed the 'B' team, and the 'B' team pushed the 'A' team to be better. We are seeing that already this season. They are making each other great."
Four sophomores return to lead the Red Hawks on the court this fall, including two captains in libero Emily Williams and setter Emilee Webber.
Williams recorded the second-most digs in a season in CVCC program history last fall (721), which are also the most of any returning volleyball player in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division II ranks.
Webber made 802 assists — the most of any Red Hawk volleyball player in 2017. She also tallied 118 kills, 332 digs and a team-high 69 service aces in 36 matches.
"I think it's nice that we have a setter and a libero who have been there before," Hudson said of her two sophomore captains.
Former Bunker Hill High School standout Karsyn Mundy, who was Catawba Valley's second-leading attacker last year with 246 kills and a .282 hitting percentage, also returns.
"Karsyn is doing a great job," Hudson said. "She's playing outside for us right now. Last year, she was a middle and some outside. She finished with crazy numbers last year. We are looking for some great things from her again this year. She is a quiet and calming presence on the court. She is not very outspoken, but we can always count on her to come through."
Na-Diea Atkins is the fourth and final Red Hawk sophomore. She will try to bounce back this season after being injured early last fall.
"To see Na-Diea's growth and development has been a really nice thing," Hudson said. "She continues to improve every day. That's exciting. She's playing some middle and some right side and also jumped in at outside some. She's kind of getting a taste at every position, especially in the front court."
Several new names will factor into the equation for the Red Hawks this fall, including freshman Rachel Delcamp at outside hitter.
Hudson has been impressed with the former prep standout from West Stokes High School.
"She looks phenomenal," Hudson said of Delcamp. "She is one of those well-rounded players who can do lots of different things. She's not afraid to hit the quick ball. She's getting more comfortable with that every day. It's not something she did a lot in high school. That's kind of pushing her. I would definitely say Rachel is going to be one of those players that you are going to have a lot of fun watching and seeing what she can do this year."
Stepping in to fill some big shoes in the middle hitter position are freshmen Sage Harrington and Emma Clark, who has a 10-foot-2-inch vertical.
"Sage has got such quick hand speed and has really embraced the offense," Hudson said. "Her quick tempo is very nice. She's another kid who is just going to do great things this year. Emma's blocking ability is just crazy. She is huge in the middle. Her blocking numbers are twice as high as anybody else on the team right now. She's going to be a kid to kind of keep an eye on this year, too."
A late spring addition, Virginia product Sienna Naotala will also see time on the court and play mostly outside, but she will also play some right side for the Red Hawks.
Hudson compares Naotala's blocking ability to that of Clark.
"She just hangs in that zone for forever," Hudson said of Naotala. "She is learning the offense. The switch from outside to right side has been an adjustment for her, but she's figuring it out quickly."
Former North Surry standout Paige Sizemore is another player that Hudson also likes, and she compares Sizemore to one of her former Catawba Valley volleyball standouts.
"She is one of those players who is starting to shine in practice," Hudson said of Sizemore. "She reminds me of (former CVCC volleyball player) Aimee Cloninger in the way she plays. She fights for every point and ball. She wants to win that pass and then she wants to win that hit. She is another kid who is fighting hard for a position on the court."
Freshman Meredith Patterson, who helped guide North Iredell High School to a 3A state championship last fall on the volleyball court, will also factor into the mix for the Red Hawks this fall.
"Meredith is playing some middle and some right side for us," Hudson said. "She's just one of those all-around amazing athletes. She's going to see the court a lot this year."
The motto for this year's Catawba Valley volleyball team is "Rise Up and Inspire" — a phrase the team came up with during their annual preseason trip to New York.
"We want to rise to the challenge. I think it's good and something that motivates," Hudson said.
With 47 matches in seven states, this young, but talented Red Hawks volleyball team will indeed need to rise to the occasion, but Hudson believes its rigorous stretch of matches will help her team reach its full potential by season's end.
"We played competitive teams last year, but we didn't do an Illinois tournament trip or a New York tournament trip last year," Hudson said. "We saw some top teams in the country in the other places we went. I know we have a small group of sophomores, but they are strong leaders. Just to have the calming presence is important. We have three of our freshman who played with us in the spring. They know what we expect, and they know we play some tough competition. We do our best to prepare them for that. We want to push ourselves to be greater. Will that include some losses along the way? Yes, but if we grow from that and it makes us a better team and gets us more prepared for what we will see at the end of the year then it's worth it. It's a good thing, not a bad thing."
Different from year's past, the Red Hawks' road to the NJCAA D-II National Tournament in Charleston, W.Va. will have some new challenges.
The tournament champion from Region 10 — Catawba Valley's region — will face the tournament champion Region 7, which is comprised of teams from Tennessee, for a berth in the national tournament as District O champion.
The Region 10 tournament champion had traditionally faced the tournament champion from Region 8, which includes six teams from Florida, for that tournament berth in the District P championship match. Region 8 will now receive its own bid to the national tournament.
"I think it'll be nice to have kind of a different feel and a different look at the tournament, but it by no means will be a walk in the park," Hudson said. "There is still going to be some great competition in the conference this year and in the district with having to face Walters State (Tenn.). There are still going to be those teams out there that you know are going to be tough and that you know you have to get through to get to the national tournament."
During the past seven years, Catawba Valley (representing Region 10) faced Pasco-Hernando State College (the Region 8 champion) in the District P finals.
Now, the Red Hawks would only see the Bobcats in Charleston for the national tournament.
"It makes us look at Pasco in a different way," Hudson said. "They've always been that team that we were always going to face in the end. It's either been us or them the past seven years. I think it's nice that it's not them this year. It's a different look on our relationship with them. We've always had a great relationship with them, but it's always been 'it's either you or us.' The chance to get to go to nationals with them is going to be a really neat thing."
The Catawba Valley volleyball team opens its season Tuesday at 3 p.m. in what could be a potential preview of the District P championship match when it hosts Region 7 foe Walters State in a home tri-match at the Tarlton Complex that also includes Division I rival Spartanburg Methodist.
Hudson said that those in attendance for Tuesday's season-opening matches will enjoy what they see on the court.
"They are going to see some great volleyball and some dynamic players who are really athletic," Hudson said. "They are going to get to experience what they've come to expect from Red Hawk volleyball, which is great competition and a great group of girls working together to achieve that one common goal."