The Mount Airy volleyball team learned how to win in 2015.
After four straight losing seasons, the Lady Bears broke through in a big way last year. Mount Airy won the Northwest Conference championship outright and finished the season with a record of 21-6, 10-1.
The Lady Bears reached the third round of the state playoffs, too, but lost a five-set thriller to the Community School of Davidson.
Last year’s success coupled with an abundance of returning talent means there are high hopes for Mount Airy in 2016, but head coach Chuck Morris knows his girls must stay focused on the process rather than the preseason hype.
“We’re trying to keep it low-key,” he said. “We understand there are a lot of expectations, but we should be dictating all of that instead of other people. We’ve just got to take it one match at a time.”
Highlighting the deep cast of returning players for Mount Airy is the 2015 Northwest Conference Player of the Year, Sarah Lankford. The rising senior organized the Bears’ offense from her setter position last year and racked up 782 assists. She also led the team in aces (81), digs (270), was fourth in blocks (54) and fifth in kills (106).
Lankford is working her way back from a knee injury that required surgery in the offseason. Morris admitted she isn’t 100 percent just yet, but she is still the heartbeat of Mount Airy’s system.
“Sarah just exudes confidence, and she’s bringing that back this season even with the knee injury,” Morris said. “She’s a stabilizing force for us.”
Lankford’s assists will have some familiar targets this season in Sadie Brooks, Madeline Mayfield and Megan Fleming. The trio of outside hitters made up three of the top four kill totals for Mount Airy last year. Mayfield supplied 268 kills, while Brooks recorded 226 and Fleming 131.
However, Mayfield will shift inside this season to help cover for Mount Airy’s two biggest departures, middle hitters Katie Hicks and Abby Harold. Joining Mayfield at the middle hitter position this year will be Arry Ward and Alex Holder.
“Our two middle hitters (Hicks and Harold) last year were both in the top-five for blocks in the conference,” Morris said. “It’s going to take some adjustments to replace them, but we’re going to tweak our offense a little bit this year to try to have our hitters moving around a little bit more than in years past.”
The biggest improvement in Coach Morris’ mind coming into this season is Mount Airy’s defense. Defensive struggles played a part last year as the Lady Bears, who started the season with an 18-1 record, limped to the finish with a 3-5 record over the final eight matches.
Defensive specialists like Kayla Hicks and Shelby Taylor have made a positive early impression. Morris is still deciding which of those two Lady Bears will serve as the libero this season, but both girls are sure to receive plenty of playing time. Hicks played some libero last season and Morris is thrilled with Taylor’s progress this summer.
Aside from the individual developments, Mount Airy has also been making strides on the defensive end from a collective perspective.
“There are just certain nuances of the perimeter defense we run that the girls are beginning to understand a bit more,” Morris said. “We’re a smarter team, and some of the concepts are coming a little easier to us this year.”
Mount Airy will open the season on the road against Elkin on Aug. 16. The Lady Bears will be the visiting team in their first three matches of the year. Mount Airy fans’ first chance to watch the volleyball team in action will come Aug. 25 against North Wilkes.
Conference play starts in early September, and the Northwest title might come down to a two-team race between East Surry and Mount Airy. The Lady Bears believe they have what it takes to repeat as champions in 2016.
“We’re just a year older, a year more mature,” Morris said. “I think the girls have the right level of confidence coming into this season. It’s not a cocky thing by any means, just confident in their abilities and ready to start competing again.”
Reach Jackson at 415-4702 and on twitter @jacksonfuller16