SPRING GARDEN – There have been volleyball seasons when Spring Garden head coach Ricky Austin has looked out on the court and he’s only had one or two good hitters, maybe a good blocker.
But this year’s Lady Panther squad has depth, perhaps more so than any other Austin has coached. And it couldn’t come at a better time, with Spring Garden moving up to Class 2A this year for the first time in school history.
“We’ve got a lot of experience coming back, and we’ve got a lot of talent coming back,” Austin said. “I really like this team. It’s a very good makeup. We’re solid in each position. Usually at a smaller school, you always think you need that one other position. If you just had that one position, you’d be a better team. With this group, the past two years for sure, I feel like we’ve been very solid at each position. All those girls have more experience. I like us at each position.
“We feel really strong in each spot, as far as being able to attack the ball. I think that was an advantage for us last year. We could always have three hitters on the net, but I feel like we’ve improved as far as our dynamic and hitting. I’m anxious to see us play, to see what we’re going to do.”
Last year’s Class 1A Final Four team has five seniors scattered throughout its lineup, including outside hitter Haleigh Molock. Molock managed 447 kills, 80 aces, 69 digs and 20 blocks last season.
Austin said the Lady Panthers plan to utilize her talent as much as they can.
“She doesn’t come off the court. She serves. She plays defense well. She can block well. We’ll look for her big arm. She’s got a real heavy arm. She’s had that heavy arm since the ninth or 10th grade,” Austin said. “I feel like she’s improved. She worked really hard all summer. We feel good with her position, the things she can do.”
Opposite Molock on the outside is junior Alle Jennings. Austin said Jennings is one of the most improved players the Lady Panthers have this season.
“She’s really hitting the ball well. She serves the ball well. She’s becoming a better passer on back row, and that’s something we work on every day. She’s really going to help us in those aspects,” Austin said.
Senior Hope Highfield provides the Lady Panthers with depth at the outside hitter positions. Highfield played on Spring Garden’s B-team last year, but this year, Austin said he expects her to give the hitters a rest when needed.
Another senior, Autumn Sides, occupies the middle. Austin said Sides is a “very athletic jumper who blocks very well.” Joining Sides in the middle is junior Suzie Carter, whom Austin noted has gotten stronger.
On the right side, senior Lexie Adkison returns after playing her first volleyball season last year. Austin said from the middle to the end of last season “she just come alive as a hitter.”
Junior Neely Welsh will pair with Adkison on the right side, but she’ll also be one of the Lady Panther setters once again, along with junior Abbey Steward.
“She’s improved as a hitter,” Austin said of Welsh. “She’s a very tall, long setter. She gets the ball to multiple places on the net. We’re going to utilize her hitting in different areas on the net other than hitting on just the right side. She’s got really quick hands, so she attacks the ball really quick. We’re going to use that as a strength for us. We’re going to move her around some.”
Austin notes Steward “probably has the best hands on the team.”
“She’s become our vocal leader during practice,” Austin said. “It’s something I thought she struggled with as a youngster, but boy, she’s been really coachable. She’s tough. She’s not real tall, but she plays a lot taller when she’s up on the net as far as setting. She does a great job for us. Her and Neely move the ball around so well. I thought Abbey had an exceptional year last year. I’m looking to see her build off of last year.”
Senior Ramie Thacker and junior Abbie Woods also return to the back row.
“Abbie and Ramie will probably switch up duty,” Austin said. “They both really get after it. I’m looking forward to really using them two on the back row and really building a lot of our defense around those two girls. I think they’ll be in a position this year where they’ll be improving all year long. Neither one has a lot of experience in that position, but they’re both going to be on the floor early a lot.”
Juniors Bre Boles and Madison Brown round out the Lady Panther roster. Austin said both will split playing time between the junior varsity and varsity teams.
“They probably don’t get as much playing time on varsity as I would like for them to get, but there are just so many good girls right in front of them,” Austin said.
The Lady Panthers compete in the new Class 2A, Area 12 along with Gaston, Sand Rock and Westbrook Christian. Austin knows it’s a strong area, particularly with Sand Rock, since the Lady Wildcats are also coming off a Final Four appearance. Spring Garden and Sand Rock tangle in area play for the first time on Sept. 10 at Spring Garden.
“It’s already a great game, a great match every time we play,” Austin said. “It’s been something that’s always been circled on our calendar. Now it’s double-circled on our schedule. We’ve already been talking about Sand Rock at some of our practices. There’s a lot of excitement (for the season). I’m just ready to get started playing.”