Country Day volleyball coach Brian Rosen said he’s re-watched the video – both replaying it on a virtual continuous loop in his mind and on tape – of last season’s N.C. Independent Schools state championship game several times.
While he doesn’t hesitate to say each of the players in the Bucs’ locker room saw him cry following Country Day’s heartbreaking 3-2 loss to rival Charlotte Latin, it’s still a game worth watching even if it provokes the negative feelings of that day.
It proves to Rosen and his team, which returns nearly intact, that they can compete with the best.
“It was hard,” said junior Hannah Kintzinger. “I probably re-watched that game several times. It’s hard to see it again because you see what you did wrong here or what you could have done better there. But you learn from your mistakes and move on.”
The Bucs have certainly done that, but they’re ready to continue their upward trend during Rosen’s tenure.
The team has made huge strides in each of Rosen’s four previous seasons as coach. It was last season, however, when they took their biggest leap. And despite a couple of key graduations and an injury to one of the Bucs’ best players, there’s plenty of reason to believe they’ll at least be playing on the final day of the season again this year.
The Bucs began 9-14 in Rosen’s first year. They jumped to 19-6 in 2010, 23-11 in 2011 and rolled out a 32-4 mark last season – a record sullied by three losses to the Latin, the team the Bucs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the state final before the Hawks pulled away.
“Last year we took a huge jump,” Rosen said. “This will be my fifth year and every year we’ve won more games than before and finished a little bit better in the states. We squeaked in the (playoffs) my first year, then finished fifth, third and last year finished second, so hopefully we’ll take one more step up.”
Like it’s been for every private school in the state the last decade, the only team in the Bucs way is Latin: the winner of nine consecutive state titles and a team Country Day hasn’t beaten in at least a decade, according to Rosen.
Latin graduated a slew of players, but this year is more about the Bucs’ talented roster than who is on their cross-town rivals. If the Bucs are to take another step up the ladder, they’ll lean on mostly the same players who came oh-so-close last year to surpassing Latin as the team to beat.
The Bucs’ junior class features at least five players who will have the chance to play in college if they choose to, Rosen said.
The best of the bunch may be outside hitter Taylor Portland, who was second on the team in kills with 342, but also tallied 250 digs, 49 aces and 13 blocks while rarely coming off the floor.
“Taylor has so much fun out there and we definitely feed off of her energy,” Rosen said. “She’s a lot of fun to watch.”
Portland’s hardly alone, though. Davidson commit Katharine Franz totaled 200 kills and a team-high 33 blocks. Kintzinger added 147 kills and, like Portland, rarely came off the court.
Those three make up what is mostly considered know commodities for the Bucs. While they bring a certain consistency, the unknown is what may have Country Day fans thinking this could be their year.
Junior Asya Patterson is hardly unknown in area volleyball circles after leading the state runner-ups in kills (353) and placing second in serving aces (54) and blocks (30) while also tallying the third most digs (171) on the Bucs’ roster.
But after tearing a ligament in her knee at the start of club volleyball season, Patterson is rehabbing to return at full strength.
“She looks really good, has been jumping and she’s getting better and better every day,” Rosen said. “Physically she’s ready, but I think it takes some time to get there mentally.”
With Patterson progressing toward full health, the Bucs other main task is replacing graduated libero Mattie Newson (613 digs, 103 aces) and setter Megan Lewis (928 assists, 136 digs, 71 kills, 40 aces), who served as co-captains a season ago.
Losing such talent would cripple many programs, but the Bucs have re-tooled in a hurry and now boast libero as a strength with the arrival of Rachel Jansen, a transfer from Kentucky.
“Mattie is phenomenal and we’ll miss her energy,” Rosen said. “But I think we’ll be at least just as strong as we were if not stronger at libero.”
With that problem addressed, Rosen is turning his attention to fixing the hole at setter. And if that’s the Bucs only problem, it’s hardly a glaring need.
“Our middle (hitters) are phenomenal passers which will help make up for the loss of our setter,” Rosen said. “Taylor is more of our vocal leader. Katharine works hard and Rachel is a go-getter. She’s so tough and isn’t scared to be sort of the bad guy.
“Last year we had less people take charge and it worked. This year they all are stepping up.”
Jansen’s addition is quite possibly the perfect stabilizer for this Country Day team that, as talented as it is, still prides itself almost as much on having fun as being dominating on the floor.
“It was really fun last year,” Franz said. “We all love each other and are so close, that it’s great to be on the court. We were loud and obnoxious when we got on the court, but that was part of the fun. That won us a lot of games. It was exciting and made us want more.
“That drive and that energy is what really helped us through the year and helped us, especially, in that championship.”
And with a championship game appearance that came within a couple points of crowing the Bucs as last year’s state champs, hopes are the fun can carry them all the way back to a state title appearance – albeit with different results this time around.
“Last year was huge,” Portland said. “It’s going to be a whole new game for our team this year without Megan and Mattie, but luckily they taught us well, so hopefully we’ll be the leaders.
“Confidence is so huge because volleyball is such a mental game. We truly felt we could beat (Latin). We went in with the mindset that we could do it and we got a lot of confidence from that loss.”
The Bucs know that with confidence and state championship appearances come lofty expectations, but they’re poised to use those as motivation more than pressure.
“I think having expectations is motivating,” Portland said. “My goal is to win a state championship and we came so close last year that we absolutely are capable of it. That makes me think, to get back to the championship and win it, we have to work even harder.
“We came so close last year. I’m not going to let a couple of points be the difference so you remember that and work harder for it.”