PILOT MOUNTAIN — When a team has walked off the court victorious 131 times in the last six years, the expectations are high.
Head coach Caleb Gilley of defending Northwest Conference champion East Surry wouldn’t have it any other way.
Although arch-rival Mount Airy has stepped up its game in the last few seasons to challenge the Lady Cardinals, East Surry has been the premier program in the NW1A ever since it swept through the 2013 conference tournament. Even two years ago, when the Lady Cardinals finished third in the regular season, they responded by beating both teams ahead of them and claiming the conference title. Last fall, East Surry started 7-3 and then won 11 straight matches, lost by two points in a fifth set to North Surry, and then won six more in a row, completing its season at 24-5 in a hotly-contested four-set road loss to eventual state champion Community School of Davidson.
The temptation is there to look ahead to a possible rematch with CSD, but the Lady Cardinals are focused on repeating as Northwest Conference champs, and this is something that league rivals Mount Airy, Bishop McGuinness and newcomer South Stokes aren’t going to roll over and hand to East Surry.
“Our goal every year is to win the conference and the conference tournament,” Gilley said. “Then we’ll get into the playoffs and see what happens.”
Leading Gilley’s red army onto the court for the 2017 campaign is two-time NW1A Tournament MVP Bethany Clayton, the only remaining Lady Cardinal who played on the 2014 state runner-up team. The 5’10” senior, who was All-Conference in three different sports last season, put up numbered that bordered on ridiculous for a setter last fall. In addition to the 823 assists, Clayton also had 167 digs, 133 kills, 75 aces and 72 blocks. In the five-set loss to North Surry, she had 37 assists, 15 kills and three blocks.
“Obviously, Bethany is a key piece,” said Gilley. “She is an all-around really good athlete and can really do anything. This season, she’s going to hit some for us. When she was a freshman, she played libero on JV.”
Wherever Gilley deploys his star this season, it’s not like the Lady Cardinals don’t have plenty of other talent with which to defend their NW1A crowns. Outside hitter Sarah Marion is back for her senior season after an All-Conference performance in which she had 153 kills and 227 digs.
Two freshmen who earned their way into the East Surry lineup are back after outstanding debuts in 2016. At middle hitter, the Lady Cardinals welcome back Maggie Holt, who was sixth on the team with 111 kills and was second with 74 blocks. Back for her second varsity season is Morgan Smith, a 5’7” libero who received about 40 percent of the serves East Surry faced, was second on the team with 302 digs, and served 63 aces herself.
“She was a freshman last year, but she played like a senior,” said Gilley of Smith.
The only returning senior besides Clayton and Marion is 5’6” defensive specialist Chelsea Tucker.
“She’s a great team player,” said Gilley. “She’d come off the bench last year and it seemed like something good happened every time.”
The rest of the team is made up of players who were on the Lady Cardinals’ JV team last year, and while that might be a bad thing for most programs, it should be noted that East Surry’s JV’s posted a perfect 21-0 record last fall, and were better than at least half of the varsity squads in the conference.
“It’s a young group, but we have some talent there,” said Gilley. “Right now, we’re working really hard and getting better every day. We’re pleased at where we’re at and continue to make steps forward.”
This might be an ominous statement for everyone else. Gilley said similar things a year ago, and it seemed like East Surry might struggle this season when it lost to North Stokes in its second conference match. But things turned around dramatically after that, with the young Lady Cardinals taking huge steps forward. Over the next two weeks, East Surry swept two 4A teams, beat Mount Airy in four, and took the conference lead. They never gave it back.
The only difference is that this time, the Lady Cardinals are the hunted, not the hunters. East Surry is favored by most to win the conference, but Gilley expects a fierce battle with the Lady Bears, who won 23 times last season and were competitive in all three matches with East Surry.
“Mount Airy has three of the best hitters in the conference, in the state really,” Gilley said. “With Sadie Brooks, Madeline Mayfield and Arry Ward up front, they might be the team to beat.”
The coach also expects a serious challenge from league newcomer South Stokes, which also has a lot of size up front and is coming down from the 2A ranks. The Sauras are replacing weak sisters Walkertown and Atkins, both of whom went up to 2A in the new realignment cycle.
“We saw (South Stokes) this summer,” he said. “We haven’t played them since they left the conference two years ago, but we know they’ve improved a lot and they’re big.”
To get ready for the Bears, Sauras and a number of challenging non-conference foes, East Surry is going to a preseason scrimmage event in Raleigh this weekend. The Lady Cardinals will face several Raleigh-area 4A teams as well as Louisburg, which was undefeated until it lost to CSD in the 1A state finals a year ago.
“It’s going to be a good thing to see where we stand right now, and facing Louisburg will give us an idea where we’re at compared to the types of teams we’ll see in the playoffs,” he said.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.