When Kendall Bender arrived at Providence High as a freshman, she had never played on an organized volleyball team.
Bender, at 6-foot-1, has always been taller than most of her peers and grew up playing basketball. But she was encouraged to give the Providence volleyball team a chance by many of her friends – and future teammates.
While she knew the Panthers were a good volleyball team, she said she had no idea of the championship tradition she was joining.
“I really didn’t feel any pressure when I tried out for the volleyball team, because I didn’t know how good they actually had been at the time,” said Bender.
Providence won five, 4A state championships – 1996, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2011.
“When I started playing for Providence, I immediately loved the sport and just wanted to play and have fun with it,” she said.
Bender dedicated herself to the sport year-round. She joined the Carolina Union Volleyball club team. She says she really improved her game that summer with her Panthers and club teammates.
“That summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I really started to get better and become more confident,” Bender said. “The older Providence girls really helped me. Playing year-round also was a big part of my improvement.”
Bender says she also benefited from the tutelage of then-first-year coach, Stephanie Harpenau, who took over the program in 2013.
Harpenau identified with her players as she wasn’t far removed from her own volleyball career. She had starred at New Albany High, Ind., before playing in college at Purdue University. She also played professional volleyball in Switzerland.
Bender immediately earned Harpenau’s respect, garnering the starting middle hitter spot in the Providence lineup just a year after starting the sport.
“Coach Harpenau was a major reason for my success, because she is so good teaching all the basic fundamentals of the game,” Bender said. “She doesn’t want us to specialize in one thing. She wants us to be good at everything.”
Harpenau said “Kendall is a player that just keeps improving every year. We count on her a lot in the front row as a blocker and killer, but she can also do a lot of damage with her serve or just making a hustle play.”
Bender’s junior year at Providence was a breakout season as she became one of the best players on her team and in the SoMeck8 conference. She recorded a team-best 300 kills and 84 blocks as well as 74 aces.
Bender did all that as a junior, and helped lead the Panthers to 26 wins, a SoMeck8 conference championship and back to the 4A state title game where they finished as 4A state runner-up to Greenville’s J.H. Rose.
“Last season was one of the best experiences I have in my life,” said Bender. “I couldn’t wait to get started again this year.”
Bender, 17, is now one of four co-captains with fellow seniors, Amy DeJuneas, Leigha Fisher and junior, Emily Konchan.
Harpenau says Bender has established herself as a leader both on and off the court for a younger team that features five starters who are new to the team, including two freshman and three transfers.
Joining Bender and DeJuneas as starters are freshman outside hitter, Carly Peck, classmate, middle hitter, Annie Leonard as well as transfers, Macy Henry (Covenant Day), Konchan (Wisconsin) and Lucy Williams (Weddington High). Sophomore, Riley Outen, also sees a lot of time in the lineup.
Inexperience has contributed to a slow start. The team was 2-3 through Sept. 1, but the goals have not changed.
“Every year, you go through a little transition period where the players figure each other out and get comfortable with each other,” Harpenau said. “We’ve gone through that a bit this year.
“But our ultimate goal is to be playing our best volleyball in October and November. I think the expectations for the Providence volleyball team are to win a conference and state championship, every year.”
While Bender may feel the pressure of trying to win it all in her final season, she doesn’t show it on the court.
“Kendall is very calm under pressure and I think that is big for our team, especially as a senior, because a lot of younger girls look up to her,” Harpenau said. “She doesn’t get rattled, even when things aren’t going our way. She stays aggressive, steps up and makes a big play.”
Bender says she likes pressure moments.
“I feed off the challenge and energy of a big match, whether the crowd is cheering for or against us,” Bender said. “You just have to focus on your game and block out the rest. I love that feeling.”
Bender also is excited about her academic and athletic future. The 4.5-grade-point-average student has landed a volleyball scholarship to UNC Wilmington. She is following the footsteps of her dad, Gregory Bender, who played basketball for the Seahawks.
“It’s kind of hard to believe I am a senior at Providence and about to take the next step in college,” Bender said. “It’s kind of a dream come true to follow my dad at Wilmington. From the beginning (college recruiting), I’ve always wanted to go there.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.