Casey Rieger joined the Providence High girls' basketball team after the season started. She was one of three players who were also on the volleyball team that lost in the state championship this year.
Rieger was worth the wait, though, as the sophomore now is leading the Panthers (12-12, 8-6) to a berth in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state playoffs and a winning record in the Southwestern 4A conference for the first time in at least six years.
The 5-foot-11 sophomore is part of a youth movement at Providence, a team featuring just one senior (Brittany Ellis, in her first year playing) and two juniors who are three-year starters (Elena Covert and Alyson King). Rieger is the only double-digit-average scorer, with 12.5 points, and also is second on the team with 8.8 rebounds per game. She also averages a team-high 1.8 steals.
But basketball isn't her main sport.
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Rieger, 16, grew up playing volleyball but decided to take up basketball in sixth grade because she "just wanted to try it." She joined a Matthews Athletic and Recreation Association team and said she struggled at the beginning.
"I was the tall, awkward, lengthy girl that was no help at all," she said.
She kept playing, joining a couple area AAU teams and playing at South Charlotte Middle.
Last year, Rieger was a freshman on the Providence junior varsity team that went 17-1. She was called up to varsity to play in the state tournament, where the Panthers lost in the first round to Hopewell, 63-40.
First-year Providence coach Bill Smith said Rieger is a good leader even as a sophomore and has a "very good basketball IQ."
"I have a lot to carry on my shoulders," said Rieger. "I'm not a team captain but I enjoy leading. ... I don't really feel like a sophomore when I'm playing. I think of us as a team."
Rieger also is a leader on the volleyball court.
"She's just a very good athlete," said Smith. "She's probably a Division I volleyball recruit."
After this volleyball season, Rieger was named to the Southwestern 4A all-conference team and was named conference player of the year after Providence won the SW4A title. She's already received interest from Appalachian State, Winthrop and UNC Charlotte, though she hopes to go to a bigger school, like UNC Chapel Hill.
Smith said he is worried Rieger might choose not to play basketball next year to focus on volleyball.
"I'm so nervous for her because she's so recruited for volleyball ... she even questioned if she should play this year," said Smith. "I just want her to know that basketball is fun."
Rieger said she enjoys basketball but that the decision will be hard, because junior year is important for volleyball recruiting.
"I like basketball a lot. It will be tough to make the decision," she said.
Smith said he hopes the team's improvement will get more girls excited about playing basketball at Providence. After winning just 10 games last year, the team finished over .500 in the conference and has secured a spot in the state tournament.
Providence has made it to each of the last three state tournaments, but just barely. The team never had a winning record and never made it out of the first round. Last year was the only time the Panthers had at least 10 wins.
"Last year we felt like we deserved to be there, and this year we definitely do," said Smith. "For me, we have done something special last year, and this year and we just need to keep improving."
Providence had two four-game win streaks this year and even won the West Mecklenburg Holiday Tournament in December.
Rieger said she thinks the team will be better next year and would like to be a part of it. She's watched how other teams build around upperclassmen and become successful. But she still worries about her volleyball future.
"Next year it's going to be a lot tougher," she said.
Smith said he hopes Rieger will be part of next year's team and continue to help build Providence girls' basketball.
"We're a young team set up to improve each year," he said. "The important thing is to try making girls' basketball here a good program."