Only three players are back from last year's Charlotte Country Day volleyball team that finished 19-6 and lost in the quarterfinals in the state tournament. This year's Buccaneers team has no seniors and just 11 players on the roster.
Despite that, the Bucs are 17-7 going into Wednesday's match against Charlotte Catholic thanks in large part to Taylor Portland and Katharine Franz. The two freshmen have started every match this year for the young Country Day team.
Both players started playing volleyball two years ago in seventh grade, Franz at Raleigh Ravenscroft and Portland in Ohio. Portland, 14, moved to Country Day for her eighth grade season and also played club for Carolina Juniors Volleyball last year.
Franz, 14, played for the Triangle Volleyball club in Raleigh before moving to Charlotte for her freshman year.
With six seniors and nine total players gone from last year's team, Portland and Franz, along with freshmen Currie Engel and Sarah Campbell, were asked to make the jump to varsity.
"It's crazy if you think about where we were in seventh grade, when who can actually get the ball over the net on their serve is who wins," said Portland. "Now there's a lot more to it and it's a lot more competitive, a lot higher level."
Head coach Brian Rosen said he knew Franz and Portland could play well on varsity, and they put in the work in the offseason to prove him right.
"The two of them came to every weight room this summer and every open gym this summer," said Rosen, 25, who is in his third year leading the Bucs.
It helps that Franz and Portland, both 5-foot-10, are two of the tallest girls on the team.
Portland, an outside hitter, has 182 kills, 42 aces and 251 digs, all second on the team behind junior Mattie Newson. Franz, a middle hitter, has 118 kills, third highest on the team, and the most total blocks on the team with 64.
According to MaxPreps, a national high school sports website, Portland leads freshmen in the state in kills, digs and is third in aces. Franz is first in blocks and second in kills.
Franz and Portland have had help from junior captains Newson and Megan Lewis, who were in a similar position two years ago as freshman.
At the beginning of the season, Rosen paired older and younger players to help the team bond.
He paired Newson with Portland and Lewis with Franz because he saw similarities in the players.
Newson and Lewis both got substantial playing time on varsity as freshmen.
"All the girls that we're playing with are so experienced and know so much about volleyball," said Portland. "They've played for so long and they're so fun and great and encouraging."
Portland and Franz said they feel really close with the team, which has helped them feel more comfortable in their starting roles.
"The coaches and the other players really just believe in us," said Franz. "If we mess up, they're not going to be like, 'Oh my gosh, they're so bad.' If we make a mistake, they'll just be like, 'That's alright.'"
In Rosen's first year at Country Day (2009), the Bucs went 9-14 and last year they were 19-6.
He could beat that win total this year with his youngest team.
The Bucs have competed in several tournaments this year and also played well with area public schools, beating Sun Valley twice, Fort Mill once and forcing Weddington to five games, eventually losing 2-3 in the second match of the year.
"They've really worked hard and competed every game," said Rosen. "I haven't walked out (of a match) thinking they could have tried harder."
"My expectations (for the team) have been completely exceeded," said Newson, 17.
And with no seniors leaving, the core of the team should be the same next year.
Country Day volleyball prides itself on being one of the most energetic teams in the area, constantly cheering and yelling encouragement on the court.
"Our team has way more energy than any of the teams that we've played," said Franz.
According to Newson, that's a big reason for the team's success.
"We're just a young team with a bunch of heart that's enjoying playing volleyball," she said.