High school volleyball: Consistent Carson ready to compete
By Mike London
Head coach: Biology teacher Kelan Rogers (12th season at Carson, 270-65)
2019: 20-8 overall, 5-5 3A North Piedmont Conference (tied, 3rd)
Playoffs: Lost 2nd round to West Henderson
Standouts: Hitter Jaden Vaughn, libero Kary Hales
Experienced players: Seniors Tate Barger, Alayna Slusser, Saybrin Thomas, Alicia Thompson
New faces: Sophomore middle hitter Gianna Patella, junior Allie Burns
Opening match: Tuesday vs. North Iredell
CHINA GROVE — The Cougars aren’t as tall nor as athletic as they once were, but this is still a terrific volleyball program.
Carson has made the state playoffs in each of Rogers’ 11 previous seasons and the Cougars have accounted for 23 of the 50 playoff victories in Rowan County history.
State runner-up in 2012 and 2013 and NPC co-champion as recently as 2018, there’s still plenty of interest in being part of a winning tradition. Six seniors, five juniors, six sophomores and seven freshmen are now in the program.
Based on the lofty standards it set in the past, Carson was down last year, but “down” for the Cougars was 20-8 and they still won a 3A playoff match. They were ranked 15th in the final MaxPreps 3A rankings.
“We had a couple of weak spots and we had to do our best to hide them,” Rogers said. “We could get stuck in a rotation that we just couldn’t get out of. But there’s a chance that there won’t be any weak spots this year. We think we’re going to be more balanced, but we won’t really know until we start playing games.”
The good thing about being in the NPC is that if you can compete for the conference championship, it means you can compete for the state championship. Carson definitely won’t be bad, and while the Cougars won’t be the favorites, they might be contenders.
“We’re going to try to be more creative,” Rogers said. “If it works, we might finish first. If it doesn’t, we might finish sixth.”
Carson has two of the county’s better players and they have been for a long time. This is the final season for Hales and Vaughn, a versatile hitter headed to Lenoir-Rhyne.
Vaughn was Carson’s best hitting option last season, by a lot. She accounted for almost 40 percent of the team’s kills and was second on the team in digs.
“Jaden is good at everything,” Rogers said. “She’s a very well-rounded player, as good on defense as she is on offense.”
The 5-foot-10 Vaughn, the Cougars’ tallest player, toiled in the middle last season, but will probably be used more as an outside hitter this year.
Hales is a dynamic libero who topped 500 digs last season. She also was the team’s top threat to score a service ace.
“I’ve been coaching volleyball about 800 years and Kary is as good as any defensive player I’ve ever coached,” Rogers said. “She doesn’t like to lose — and I like that.”
Tate Barger returns as the setter who will look to set up kills for Vaughn. She averaged 8.7 assists per set.
The other three seniors could fill important roles. That’s defensive specialist Thomas, outside hitter Slusser, whose biggest strength is front row defense, and right side hitter Thompson also has setting experience if Carson opts to go with a two-setter system.
“We’ve also got some juniors who are coming on,” Rogers said. “Allie Burns has a motor that’s non-stop.”
Burns and Grace Goldstein aren’t tall, but they’re capable hitters. Victoria Story set for the jayvees. Stephanie Shutt is a right side hitter, while Kahlil Cross is a defensive specialist.
Gianna Patella, a sophomore, could start in the middle. That would allow Vaughn to move outside.
Another sophomore who might help the varsity is Elly Davis, a defensive specialist who transferred from East Rowan.
Normally, Carson has plenty of matches before it plunges into the NPC battles, but this COVID-shortened season starts with always strong North Iredell.
One of Carson’s best matches last season was a home win against North Iredell.
“But so many things about this season are different,” Rogers said. “We’ll have to see what we can do.”