Red Hawks ready to ‘Embrace the Challenge’ in 2019

Red Hawks ready to ‘Embrace the Challenge’ in 2019

HICKORY, N.C. — Coming off one of its most successful seasons in program history, the Catawba Valley Community College volleyball program hopes for even most success as it starts its 2019 season this fall.

The Red Hawks, who enter the season ranked fifth among National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) DII teams, return nine sophomores from a 2018 squad that won 36 matches, including three victories at the NJCAA DII National tournament in Charleston, W.Va. for the first time ever.

Shannon Hudson, who enters her 11th season as the head coach of the CVCC volleyball program, says last year's experiences are beneficial for her players heading into this fall's campaign.

"I think it gives the girls confidence coming into the season," Hudson said. "Last year, we had 16 freshmen. They were unsure of themselves and unsure of what they could accomplish together. It was probably mid-season last year before they realized 'hey, we're pretty good at this game and if we work together, we can be really successful.' We don't have that obstacle to overcome this year. They know what they can accomplish. The sophomores are amazing leaders. They are bringing that confidence to practice. It definitely shows on the court. That's definitely a nice thing."

Despite last season's successes, Hudson said her volleyball players have come back hungrier and have worked harder to exceed their 2018 performance.

"I'm really enjoying this group of girls," she said. "They are great teammates. They are hard workers. They come into practice every day ready to give 100 percent and work hard to accomplish our goals. For me, one of the big things for this year with the sophomore leadership and the larger number of sophomores that we have coming back, I just feel like we are a little further ahead than we typically are at this point in the season. That's nice. We are able to move past the basics a little bit quicker. I feel like we have an extra step forward going into the season. That's a nice feeling for sure."

Hudson has been tasked this fall with filling two very important roles — libero and setter — after sophomores Emily Williams and Emilee Webber graduated last year.

Williams finished her career ranked second all-time in career digs (1,485), while Webber finished third in career assists (1,520).

Returning sophomore Bre Myers — one of the team's three captains — is expected to fill Williams' vacant libero role for the Red Hawks.

"Bre is a sophomore who saw limited playing time on the court last year, but she worked hard in practice," Hudson said. "She came in and did extra reps. She got some experience in the libero position this spring when we had our scrimmages. She has just really taken off. She was voted one of our captains. She is a really strong leader on the court. Her passing has been phenomenal. She has done an amazing job of stepping up up and filling some really big shoes that Emily (Williams) left vacant. I'm excited about what Bre is doing and how she's continued to develop as a player."

Webber's departure opens the door for a new face to the Catawba Valley volleyball program this fall — freshman Amber Barker — to take the reins at the setter position.

"Setter was another tough role and tough position to fill this year," Hudson said. "One of our freshmen coming in — Amber Barker — has just done a great job. She's still figuring things out. She's not quite as confident as I think she will be when she gets a few matches under her belt. She's doing an awesome job at the setter position. She brings a lot of athleticism. We're still working on the precision and learning how the offense works, but I feel like she's going to get there pretty quickly."

Perhaps the biggest returning piece for the Red Hawks volleyball team is sophomore middle hitter Emma Clark — a first-team All-American as a freshman and the reigning Region X Player of the Year.

Clark, who set Catawba Valley's single-season record for total blocks (204), was named a Player to Watch by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) — only one of two DII players in the nation to earn that honor.

Despite all her records and awards, Hudson says Clark has remained modest.

"Emma is still one of the most humble players I've ever coached," Hudson said. "All that she has accomplished and her stats from this past season — she still does not realize what a dynamic player that she is. That can be a good thing because she comes into practice every day wanting to get better and to improve her skill set, and she has. She's gotten stronger and quicker. She's understanding our offense better and what she needs to do. She is just going to set more records this year. She's just a phenomenal player to watch. I'm so excited for her and to have her back as a leader on the court this year."

Clark isn't the only returning weapon for the Red Hawks, who also bring back middle hitter Sage Harrington (293 kills, 144 total blocks), outside hitter and Meredith Patterson (204 kills, 124 digs) and right side Siena Naotala (238 kills, 154 total blocks).

"We've got a lot offensive weapons with that nice strong attack that we've grown accustomed to from Emma and Sage (Harrington) in the middle and then our other sophomore hitters that we have returning from last year," Hudson said. "Meredith Patterson is doing a great job as a six row outside for us. We've got Siena, who was one of our starters last year playing right side. She's got a really strong block. Her hitting numbers looked great as well."

Sophomore Anna Clarke, who saw limited playing time last fall, and freshman Aasia McNeill, a Statesville High School grad, are also expected to play a role in Catawba Valley's offensive attack.

"Anna Clarke, who played in probably about half our matches last year, has stepped up and improved her game," Hudson said. "She worked hard in the offseason to get better and stronger. She's looking great out there as well … Aasia's hitting percentage is way up there right now. She's looking really strong. We're excited about what she's going to bring to the offense."

The theme for this year's Catawba Valley volleyball team is "Embrace the Challenge" — a motto that was developed during the team's annual preseason trip to New York.

The slogan was designed as a way of carrying on last season's success into what the Red Hawks hope will be another successful season this fall.

"We finished ninth last year so we knew the big challenge this year was to stay focused as a team, to do the little things right and challenge ourselves to do even better than that this year," Hudson said. "We would love for that to happen in way of finishing in a higher position than we did at the national tournament, but that's not our main focus. Our main focus is challenging ourselves in practice every day and improving. Challenging yourselves to embrace whatever is before you that day. Our feeling is that if we can do that well every day, the wins will take care of themselves, and we'll have a great finish at the national tournament this year."

A demanding 2019 schedule, which includes tournaments in four different states, will once again test the Red Hawks on the volleyball court this fall, especially its group of eight incoming freshmen.

The Red Hawks open their regular season at home on Tuesday, Aug. 27 against Southwest Virginia Community College before hitting the road for three-straight tournaments in Ohio, Florida and New York, where they will face five teams who are ranked among the top-20 in the NJCAA DI, DII or DIII polls.

"It's kind of like the gauntlet right at the beginning of the season, but I think it really helps our team to figure out who we are and how we are going to compete together," Hudson said. "I love that we are away spending time together as a team. I think that really helps the dynamic. Facing some really tough competition right at the beginning of the season is always a challenge, but it helps us to grow as well. We enjoy starting our season off with a challenge. Like we've done in the past, it's going to be an eye-opener about where we are, what we need to improve on and how we can continue to develop as a team to make it through the heart of the season in September and October."

The Red Hawks will try to extend their 126-match winning streak in Region 10 play starting Wednesday, Sept. 4 with a road match at USC Salkehatchie.

The conference winning streak is something that Hudson or her players haven't focused on.

"We try not to dwell on it too much," she said. "There is the pressure to not have a team break that streak, but we really try to take the pressure off the team and just say 'go out there and do your best.' It's going to end at some point. It's okay when it does. We've had an awesome run in the conference. Eventually there's going to be a team — it could be this year or it might not – that has that group of girls that is going to be able to take us down.

"We really don't focus on it too much," she added. "Our focus is to play to the best of our ability on our side of the net, give 100 percent, work hard and to perform well together as a team. I will say that this team is very strong. I don't anticipate (the end of the streak) happening this year. We've just got a great group of girls that are clicking together. Unless a few injuries would happen, I think we've got the team that can keep that streak alive this year."

In a change from last season, the winner of the Region 10 tournament championship will host the Region 7 champion in the District O championship match, meaning the Red Hawks could potentially clinch a ninth ticket to the national tournament at the Tarlton Complex on Nov. 9.

"I'm excited about that," Hudson said. "I like how we've made the change and how the district game has gone away from being the region championship to where we have true region championship and the winners play in the district title match. I think that's better for our region and district as a whole. The fact that we would get to host the district match if we won the region is just a huge bonus. I think that would be awesome for our team and for our families to be able to see that."

The winner of the District O final will travel to Charleston, W.Va. for the NJCAA DII National tournament on Nov. 21-23 at the Charleston Civic Center.

Hudson is hopeful her team can claim its ninth district crown to make its first back-to-back national tournament appearance since the 2012-13 seasons.

"It's just such a highlight of the season and a goal that the girls set for themselves every year," Hudson said of nationals. "It's more than just a national tournament. It's a great experience for the girls. To get to compete on that stage is just something. It's a chance that most athletes don't get to experience. I'm hoping that we can get there for these girls and that they'll get to experience what it's like to compete against these big teams and have a chance to win a national championship and place high."

Could a national title — only the school's second ever and first in a women's sport — be achievable? Hudson believes it can happen, but only if her players unite that one common goal.

"I definitely think we have a chance to finish top 10 again this year," she said. "If we are able to develop and come together as a team, we can even pull off the top five finish, which would be just an awesome accomplishment. We're hoping. We'll keep working. We'll see what happens."