Providence High School won the conference title, finished 27-5 and made it to the state volleyball finals last year.
The Panthers began this season with a string of victories and seem poised to build on what they started last season.
Last year the Panthers started 1-2 but then reeled off 13 straight wins. Going in to the state final against Apex, they had won another 11 straight games and felt it was their year. Providence was overmatched in the final, however, and fell in three straight games.
Although they have six changes to the roster, the core group has returned, and this time they will be the experienced team seeking revenge.
"Now we know what it takes, and if we can stay focused, we have the talent to get back," said senior outside hitter/middle blocker Megan Edwards.
Joining Edwards is senior middle blocker Mireya Braxton and junior outside hitter Casey Rieger, the core of the talented returning players.
"We want to redeem ourselves from last year," Rieger said. "We had a great year and accomplished so much, but that final game was a letdown. We want to prove that we deserved to be there last year and we can win it this time around."
Providence has more than enough talent to repeat as conference champs. Rieger led the team last season with 240 kills, in addition to 194 digs and 38 aces. Edwards had 235 kills, 122 digs and 67 aces, and Braxton had 110 kills, 53 digs, 46 aces and 40 blocks.
"We are a talented team, but Ardrey Kell, Butler and Myers Park are really good too," said Panthers head coach Karen Bradury. "Plus, the former champs always get looked at differently, and people give us their best effort."
One of the adjustments is welcoming a new setter: Senior Maryanne Grayson and junior Katherine Boguski have been competing for the job.
"Adjusting to hitting off a new setter takes some time, but we have been doing well with it and getting more comfortable each day," said Braxton. "We still have a lot of our big hitters from a year ago and are going to be fine."
Through the first five matches, the Panthers have not lost a single game. The Panthers also have bonded on and off the court. Edwards said they often spend time together outside school, and new members have fit in quickly.
"It is totally different this year. There are so many girls who want to take leadership, and now everyone has an opinion and speaks it," Rieger said. "Sometimes we clash a little, but it definitely makes us stronger, since we are all one voice."
Braxton, Edwards and Rieger are eager to lead the team back to a state title game. The early results have been great, but the Panthers and their veteran leaders have an ultimate goal that does not involve wins in August.
"We are going to be the team to beat all year, and that will only make us better in the end," said Edwards. "Everyone will be gunning for us and trying to take us down, but we need to be careful and prepared each time out."
If they make it through the regular season, the Panthers are confident the end will be different this time.
"We had a disadvantage last year, going to play at their court in front of a huge crowd under the bright lights. Literally the whole Apex school seemed to be there, and we came out slow and never recovered," said Rieger. "This year we know what to expect."