Focus, preparation, talent helped drive Polk County to 1A state volleyball title

Published 12:04 pm Monday, November 13, 2023

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Molly Hill’s office behind Polk County’s gym has some new adornments.

T-shirts labeled “State Champs” are stacked on a couch. A state champion’s medal hangs near the ceiling. A ball signed by members of Polk County’s 2023 team and labeled “State Champs” sits just above Hill’s desk.

Not hard to see the latest accomplishment of the Wolverine volleyball program.

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It’s been just over a week since Morgan Yoder’s kill fell to the floor of Reynolds Coliseum and gave Polk County its first state volleyball championship courtesy of a 3-0 win over Falls Lake Academy. The reality of being a reigning state champion is settling in for the Wolverines and Hill, who have been fielding a steady stream of text messages and emails over the past week.

“I keep having moments where I’m like, gosh, we actually did that. We actually won it,” Hill said. “I keep getting asked what is better, to win as a player or to win as a coach (Hill was part of West Henderson’s 2008 state champs). It’s just so much more impactful for me as a coach because I just really put everything I’ve got into this.

“So much time and effort and energy and really devoted everything I’ve got to this team and these girls, and for them to give that back and have the same goals in mind, it was really, really special. This one means a lot to me.”

Polk County’s championship run encompassed six matches in two weeks. The Wolverines lost just one set in those six matches – that to Cherokee – and opponents had an average set score of 15.8 in the playoffs. Of the 19 postseason sets the Wolverines played, opponents scored 20 or more points in just four.

It appeared a dominant, almost easy run to a championship. Hill says that was far from the case.

“Mentally, it wasn’t easy,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure on the girls and on me. Before every one of those games, I remember telling Christen (Smith), my assistant, that I could be sick. Because I was just so wound up and nervous for them.

“But we really prepared well. That’s one thing that I’ll definitely brag about as far as my girls, they were totally on board with every day that we watched film. And we took specific things that we saw that we needed to prepare for, for each person we were playing, each team we were playing. And we worked on those in practice. We were just devoted to doing what we had to do.”

That preparation extended to the Falls Lake match. On the morning of the final, Hill gathered the Wolverines in a hotel room, and while watching film of the Firebirds, the team talked through and put together a new plan of attack just hours before the first serve.

“I changed my entire lineup that day,” Hill said. “In this debrief that we had in the hotel room, Zaelea (Eller) was saying no, let’s do this, and Sophia’s (Overholt) pitching in saying I think we should do this. And then we all just came up with this game plan.

“I have pictures on my phone of where I wrote it on a hotel notepad, this new lineup. I’ve just got to give credit to them. They were willing to do whatever we had to do to prepare and get our minds right mentally. But it was mentally exhausting as well as physically exhausting, that many games but also the pressure they were under.

“And I just felt like they really excelled at preparing themselves, and that was so helpful.”

Polk’s pre-match preparation for the state final received an added boost from the lessons that Hill learned in 2018, when the Wolverines fell to Falls Lake in the school’s first state final appearance. Nerves plagued Polk early in that match, and Hill kept that in mind when gearing up for the return trip.

The Wolverines also visited Reynolds Coliseum on Friday afternoon and then returned that evening and sat courtside to watch N.C. State host Boston College in an Atlantic Coast Conference match. That helped give the team a taste of the game environment in Reynolds and perhaps eased any pre-match anxieties.

“I overprepared for this game,” Hill said. “In 2018, we prepared, we watched film, we did all those things. But I just wanted to almost overdo it.

“The meeting and the hotel room to watch film and all that, that wasn’t completely necessary. But it ended up being necessary because we had to change our lineup and discuss new stuff. I almost wanted to overdo it just to really make them feel comfortable in what we were doing.”

Polk County’s players also got to watch conference rival Brevard claim its own state championship, easily downing Camden County in the 2A final that preceded the 1A clash. The only blemishes on Polk’s 28-3 record came courtesy of Brevard, and the Wolverines lost just four sets all season to teams other than the Blue Devils (three in two matches with Asheville Christian Academy and the one to Cherokee).

Those three losses – two in four sets, one in five – proved painful for Polk County. But those setbacks may also have helped propel the Wolverines in their postseason push.

“I feel like whether you win or lose, you can take something from it and learn from it,” Hill said. “Obviously, those losses were not what we wanted and how we wanted. But we definitely learned from it and I feel like we grew from and we got better.

“They’re so much bigger than us, even though they’re in the same conference. They have a ton more students than us. All the other schools that we play, the T.C. Robersons, the West Hendersons, ACA, these schools that are really dominant in volleyball and have been for a long time and are bigger than us.

“It’s a confidence booster to play them, to keep up with them and then beat them. So I would say the Brevard matches were definitely something that helped us in the long run. It wasn’t what we wanted, but it did give us that sense of confidence that we could hang with all these bigger schools and we can win.”

The lineup that took part in the state final included three seniors – Eller, Ada Kelley and Elena Carroll – with injured senior Mikala Fisher watching from the sideline. Replacing that group will be Hill’s top challenge this offseason, but she will also return Yoder, who had 15 kills in the final, as well as Overholt (Most Valuable Player of the final), Kylie Lewis, Mia Bradley and more.

That core group of returnees, plus a large group of eighth graders moving up from Polk County Middle School, will undoubtedly start talk of a repeat run to the final. That will mean even more pressure on Polk County for the 2024 season.

Hill is looking forward to it.

“We have so many returners, and so it’s going to be exciting to have everyone back and the opportunities and options that we’ll be able to have not only for my level on varsity, but also for the JV level.

“It’s really exciting, and I also think that it’s just going to continue to grow, and more people are going to get involved, and that’s fun.”