Rachel Noreika knows exactly what her players are going through on the volleyball court, no matter how important the game gets.
The Southlake Christian volleyball coach, 31, was a four-year starter and an All-Big South player at Liberty before going on to play professional volleyball in Germany, Austria and Indonesia. Noreika also coached college volleyball at Liberty, Samford and Winthrop before coming back to her high school roots at Southlake Christian in 2006.
Noreika, in her sixth year with the Eagles, still plays on several professional beach-volleyball tours and tournaments nationwide during the summer.
"My players know I have been there and done that when it comes to playing volleyball," Noreika said. "I think that has allowed most of the players to trust me and buy into the system."
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Noreika's boss, Southlake Christian Athletic Director Rich Landis, agrees.
"Being a great player doesn't always translate into being a great coach," said Landis, "but Rachel coaches like she has been here for 20 years. She has been very successful with her players and teams in just a short time."
The Eagles were never better than last season, when Noreika and her Southlake Christian volleyball team won the NCISAA 2A state championship in dramatic fashion by taking out No. 2-seed Cary Christian in the semifinals before beating top-seeded Asheville Christian in the final.
Southlake (25-5, 12-1 last year) not only won the school's first team title but completed the climb after having been in the state semifinals the three previous years - coming up short in the final four each time.
"Last year was a validation and reward for all of the hard work we have put in here," Noreika said. "But now this season is a whole new year. We are going to have to work just as hard, if not harder, to get back where we want to go, which is another state championship."
The Eagles will have to do it at the NCISAA 3A level now, meaning seven-time defending state champion Charlotte Latin and others will be in their path.
But Noreika and the Eagles have the talent to do so, beginning with all-state outside hitter Katie Shoenrock, who had a 37-kill performance in the state finals. Shoenrock, a senior, finished last year with 329 kills, 83 aces, 24 blocks and 149 digs to lead the Eagles.
But Shoenrock won't have to do it alone as all-state middle Kayla Summer also returns with her 259 kills and 181 digs from a year ago.
The Eagles have even more coming back, including sophomore libero Olivia Loeffler, who was solid last year but has "improved even more," according to Noreika. Seniors Molly Crawford and Hannah Croom, juniors Kelsey Bundy and Amanda Nerness and sophomore Katie McGuire will also provide depth and experience.
Meanwhile, the main question is who will be the setter, after incumbent Meghan Bentley graduated. The candidates right now are both freshmen: Dakota Hawkins and Lucy Iannarino.
"If we can get some consistency from our setter, I think we can be really good," said Noreika.
While many questions will face Noreika and company in their quest to repeat, the Southlake Christian players and their coach expect nothing less than the best.
"Our goal from the beginning will be to win a conference and a state championship," Noreika said. "We know it's going to be tough against teams like Charlotte Latin and Cary Academy, but we believe in ourselves and know that all things are possible."
Talent is widespread in Lake Norman area
While SouthLake Christian looks to win the Metrolina conference and beyond, the I-Meck conference should be wide open this year.
Hopewell (27-4 last year) and Lake Norman (29-3) spent most of last season in the state's top 10, but have a lot to replace because of graduation. The Titans will depend on junior Rachel Eppley, the lone returning starter, for a lot of leadership on the floor. The Wildcats begin with a new coach in Jonna Ramsey, who came from Hickory High, and will have starters Briana Gottberg, Madison Poovey and Jensen Schott to build.
Meanwhile, Hough and North Mecklenburg should be in the mix for the I-Meck crown. The Huskies will be led by coach Sandi Skidmore as well as setter Nikki Hero and outside hitter Katherine Kennedy. Meanwhile, the Vikings will look to All-I-Meck outside hitter Maddie Greer to lead them..
East Lincoln goes back to work as one of top teams in the Southern Piedmont conference, with Lake Norman Charter joining the league for the first time. Davidson Day was one of the most improved teams in the area last year, finishing second in the SPAA, and hopes to challenge for the conference title again this year.