CHARLOTTE – For over a decade now, the Providence volleyball team has established itself as one of the preeminent programs in the state.
And judging from the 6-1 start to this season, this year is going to be no exception as the Panthers look to compete for the So. Meck 7 title alongside bitter rival Ardrey Kell and once again be one of the state’s best teams.
Coach Margaret Malone, who is in her third season, helped lead the Panthers to a 22-9 overall record, a 10-2 conference mark and a trip to the fourth round of the playoffs last season.
But this team may be her best yet.
“I think the culture of our team is amazing,” she said following a 3-0 win over Butler on Aug. 30. “They get along so well and really enjoy coming to practice. I think it’s really cool they have a love for the game, a love for each other and just a love of playing together and hanging out together. I think that’s the most impressive part of our season so far.”
Through seven matches, the team has four straight-setters and has outscored its opponents 20-6.
In addition to the great camaraderie, the Panthers lineup is loaded with stars.
Juniors Alanna Harder (team-best 65 kills and 19 digs) and Madison Cail (61 kills, team-best 20 blocks and 13 aces) lead the attack, but there are plenty of others for standout setter Katie Cruise to feed the ball.
Cruise, a sophomore tri-captain, leads the team with 219 assists and doesn’t pick favorites.
Olivia Stephens (34 kills), Destiny Stewart (30 kills) and Gabby LaPata (team-high 81 digs, and team-best 22 aces 20 kills) are the main beneficiaries, but players like Ella Tassey, Emily Debe, Abigail Gray and Alex Butters are some of the other standouts for a team with big expectations.
In their win over Butler, for example, only two or three balls hit the floor all game despite the whole team getting a chance to play in the blowout.
“I think it’s our program in general. Our mentality is that we’re going to go for every ball and we’re not going to let the ball drop,” Malone said. “We have really good leadership on our team, which has really helped us. And we have really good senior captains in Ava LaPata and Sarah Knafelz (who is just coming back from injury, further strengthening the team). We have to have a really good setter to get those balls out there, and Katie Cruise is exceptional. She’s the hardest worker in our gym, so I think when we have a setter that puts the balls up for hitters and hitters who want to attack the ball, good things will happen.”
That’s been the formula for success to this point of the season, and it’s working nearly to perfection although Malone said she’s like to see a little more attacking from all over the court.
“We’re talking all of the time about getting kills because we have a great back row that keeps the ball in the air, but we need to work on terminating the ball more and not going back and forth so much,” she said.
“We have two really, really strong middles that tend to terminate balls. Alanna is really good at terminating balls for us, but I think we need to do a little better at terminating balls from all over the court to make us as successful as we can be.”
The Panthers are just beginning to get into conference play after starting 1-0 with a shutout win over West Meck on Sept. 3.
Tougher tests await when Ardrey Kell and South Meck play the Panthers in a few weeks, but for now they are right where they want to be.
“Ardrey Kell has really good terminators on both sides of the net that we are going to have to keep up with, and we see them in a couple of weeks,” Malone said. “They have some really good hitters, and we’ll need to match up with them but that’s not for a while. We’re focused right now on getting better every day and I think we’re doing that.”