Long before the 2014 Covenant Day volleyball team suited for its first real match, the competition between teammates in the Lions’ gym this summer reached an intensity that coach Heather Mills hadn’t seen before.
Coming off their best season in school history – going 32-4 and making it to the program’s first NCISAA state championship game before losing to Charlotte Country Day 3-1 – this year’s team is more motivated than ever before.
“Obviously, the players have high expectations and they want to win it all,” said Mills, who is in her eighth season as head coach. “But I’m not focused on that now. I am focused on doing what I can to help this team get better in every practice, in every game. The competition we’ve had just within the squad has created ‘game-like’ practices. We not only have a lot of talent, but a lot of depth. All of this is going to really help us throughout the season.”
Mills’ players have similar feelings.
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“We’re always going at it at practice with each other, pushing each other all the time to whether it’s a game or just a drill,” said Covenant Day senior setter and co-captain Megan Embry, one of six seniors. “Coming off that loss (to Country Day in state finals), I think we are really amped up for this season. We have a lot of seniors and this is our last year, so we really want this bad for the team. I think we’ve worked even 10 times harder knowing that.”
Added senior Hannah Billiard, “We all love with playing with and against each other and we don’t like losing at anything.”
The Lions are loaded with experience and talent again, losing just one senior from the 2013 squad in Madison Hargette.
Back to lead the way are the senior tri-captains: middle blocker Billiard (all-conference last year with 259 kills, 67 blocks), setter Embry (all-state with 921 assists, 286 digs) and outside hitter Christina Goforth (all-state with 389 kills, 55 aces, 218 digs).
The Lions also have three more seniors with experience: Allie Ferguson, Anna Schoeck (56 blocks last season) and Makenna Wray.
The sophomore class is equally strong, consisting of six girls that gave Covenant Day instant contributions as freshmen.
Sophomores Sarah Billiard, Hannah’s sister, (all-conference with 386 kills last year), Carly Brower, Charissa Coleman (310 digs), Macy Henry (all-conference with 444 digs), Maddie Grace Hough (190 digs) and Kristen Seibert (157 digs) will all play big roles this season.
Juniors Claire Bellina, Corrie Nassar and Abby Olive should also see time.
The Covenant Day volleyball team has been defined by its constant defensive hustle, according to coaches like Charlotte Country Day’s Brian Rosen.
The back line defenders, Coleman, Ferguson, Henry and Hough, even have their own nickname: the “Mighty Mites,” because of their constant hustle but small stature.
“Our defense is what has taken us as far as we’ve gotten and will be what defines us again,” Mills said. “We just have to finish better this year.”
Covenant Day shifts from the Metrolina Athletic Conference to the Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association with Cannon, defending state champion Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Christian, Providence Day and Charlotte Latin, which won nine straight titles from 2003-2012.
“Our conference will be a huge challenge for us, but at the same time I think it will prepare us better for the end of the season,” said Mills, whose team won the last two MAC regular season and tournament titles. “Every conference game is going to be a big game for us. As a coach, I feel the pressure because we have all the tools, all the weapons, and the depth, we just have to go out and get it done.”
The Lions’ championship focus got another boast earlier this month when the team had its annual retreat at Seabrook Island, S.C.
While the girls didn’t play a lot of volleyball – except some beach volleyball – they did a lot of team bonding.
“We still have that state championship goal,” said Goforth. “But now we are just focusing on being the best team we can be in every game against every team. We feel a lot more prepared and know what we have to do.”
Covenant Day has won 93 matches over the past four seasons. Now the Lions are ready to take the next step.
For a team and program that has become accustomed to winning on a regular basis, with 93 wins in the past four seasons, Mills and Co. are eager to take the next step.
“Last year we accomplished so many of our goals, beating Latin for the first time, getting to state finals, and it was a great run,” Embry said. “But playing in the finals we didn’t know what to expect. But now we know what it takes, and we want to get back and we don’t want to walk off that court with a loss this time.”