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2021 VOLLEYBALL PREVIEW: Diminutive Garrett, Ballenger inspire Sand Rock with their hustle

Sand Rock’s McKenna Ballenger, right, sets a ball for a teammate during a match at Spring Garden last season. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

SAND ROCK – The Sand Rock volleyball team doesn’t have far to look for motivation during the 2021 season. All the Lady Wildcats have to do is look at the sacrifices by senior libero Caley Garrett and senior setter McKenna Ballenger.

Both players may be small (both are around 5-foot-3), but they consistently sacrifice their bodies to get their hands on a ball, just to keep it alive for a teammate to send it back over the net.

“It’s hard not to give it everything you’ve got when you watch Caley Garrett and McKenna Ballenger, the way they are playing. You can’t be on that floor and not give it 100 percent,” head coach Lisa Bates said.

“Watching them, the way they’re going after balls and sacrificing their bodies, makes everybody on the court have to. It’s not fair if you don’t. This summer we have really seen that. I know we’ve always been scrappy, but we’re extra scrappy because everybody’s like ‘I have to.’ Their performance demands your effort. That’s what’s going to be fun to watch.”

Garrett is returning from knee surgery during basketball season. Bates said Garrett has returned to form after collecting 710 digs, 66 assists, 19 aces and five kills last season.

“She’s hungry to play something,” Bates said. “She did great with rehab. She’s been playing July volleyball and doing really well, moving well. We’re pleased with that.”

Ballenger is also coming off an impressive 2020 volleyball season. She posted 474 assists, 241 digs, 19 aces and two kills, helping Sand Rock earn a 29-11 record and the Class 2A, Area 12 championship.

“She’s done a phenomenal job for us,” Bates said of Ballenger.

The Lady Wildcats have several skilled players surrounding the diminutive Garrett and Ballenger, including senior middle hitter Lanie Henderson. Henderson returns after accumulating 225 kills, 95 digs, 43 blocks, 34 aces and five assists last season.

“We’re expecting a lot out of Lanie,” Bates said. “She has grown a lot maturity-wise. She’s definitely one of my leaders.”

Joining Henderson in the middle is junior Jacey Stephens. Her younger sister, sophomore Chloe Stephens, should see playing time as an outside or right side hitter.

“They both have really grown in the game since the spring,” Bates said. “I think they are going to be super-key for us. Both of those girls work hard at basketball and volleyball. They have come a long way. We’re looking for a lot of good things out of them.

“Jacey played last year (as a setter), so she has experience, but we’re changing positions on her. Chloe just needs the game experience. She’s fearless, and that’s fun. This summer, we’ve been in tight situations and she is swinging hard. Sometimes girls will be passive in those situations, but not Chloe. She’s fearless and that’s good.”

Junior Jadyn Foster and sophomore Katelyn St. Clair provide the Lady Wildcats with more experience at the outside hitter positions. Foster could also see playing time on the right side.

“Jadyn is just an athlete who can make some things happen,” Bates said. “She just makes those special plays where you’re just like ‘Oh, that’s so athletic.’

“Katelyn has grown some and gotten stronger. We’re expecting some good hitting out of her from the outside.”

Rounding out the Lady Wildcat varsity lineup are sophomores Rylin St. Clair, Zoey Handy and Bethany Davis.

“Rylin does not have varsity experience, but she has really gotten a lot better this summer,” said Bates, who notes St. Clair will play the right side and be a backup setter. “She’s played club ball and really loves the game. She just needs experience. She’s going to help up out here in the next couple of years.

“Zoey is a middle hitter for us and she’s had a really good summer. She’s getting better in both volleyball and basketball, so we’re excited about that.

“Bethany Davis is a rising setter. She’s Hannah Davis’s little sister. She’s getting some great experience.”

As mentioned, Sand Rock competes in Class 2A, Area 12 along with Spring Garden, Westbrook Christian and Gaston. The Lady Wildcats open the 2021 season on Aug. 21 in a quad match at Geraldine.

“We’re looking forward to this year,” Bates said. “We’ve had a really fun summer. We’ve done a lot in July. We’ve gotten some good competition that was good for us. We got to play the 2A state champs (Addison) and Winston County. We’ve played a good summer schedule, which has been good for those girls who don’t have all the experience.”

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