ASHEBORO — In an age of high school sports where every game is deemed do-or-die and every contest is considered crucial, Uwharrie Charter Academy volleyball coach Lee Kennell has taken a different approach.
And things are working out just fine for the Eagles.
UCA, which is in its third year of competing in the Piedmont Athletic Conference, spent its first two years searching for that statement win over league powers Southwestern Randolph and Randleman, falling short each time. So Kennell decided to switch philosophies a bit.
“We always made everything bigger than it actually was and we got ahead of ourselves at times,” Kennell said as the Eagles entered play this week with a 5-0 league record, one of those wins a straight-set decision over Randleman, and an 11-2 mark overall. “Being the newcomer in the conference (UCA joined the PAC in 2021), you want those statement games, those big wins. We made things bigger than they were instead of winning the one right in front of you.”
UCA has won most of those “right in front” this year as they have orchestrated their way through a tough non-league schedule, which included wins over Ledford, Richmond County and Bishop McGuinness.
“This year, we’ve been focusing on just the game ahead of us and not anything past that and we are doing a good job of focusing on what we have to do for that game,” senior libero Addie Duggins said. “Going into this conference, we knew Southwest and Randleman were the teams to beat and after playing them for a couple of years, we know what to expect and know what we are capable of.”
UCA and Eastern Randolph are the only 1-A teams in the PAC with the other five members 2-A squads. UCA has been more than competitive in this three-year span with a 22-8 record in conference play and 46-16 overall.
“I still feel we are under the radar,” Kennell said. “That’s how I hope our girls feel. Until we win the conference, we are still underdogs in my book. We know to get to that point, we have to beat the best.”
The Eagles beat one of the best in the area on Sept. 7 when UCA recorded a victory over Randleman.
“Our team has talked about it,” senior Kenzie Hill said of matchups with SWR and RHS. “In years past, we just had a gut feeling or a pit in our stomach all day. This year, we were laid back and ready to play. We were looking at the bigger picture. It’s great if we beat those teams, but it’s not our end goal.”
UCA has received stellar efforts from many different players, including senior Chloe Painter, who is in her fourth year on the varsity team. Painter has contributed in all phases, averaging double-digits in kills, digs and assists this season.
“The best way I can describe her is she has always been the voice of this team,” Kennell said. “When she was a freshman and a sophomore, she didn’t play as much as she liked, but she was still there with her voice, always encouraging everyone. Now she literally does everything on the floor for us.”
One other difference in Kennell’s philosophy is to have the seniors do the work before and after each practice. While most programs use underclassmen for these daily chores, it’s the seniors at UCA who set up the net and take it down every day as well as preparing the gym for practice and workouts.
“Lead by example,” Hill said. “It earns their respect.”
Duggins said that has helped the Eagles become closer.
“Everyone is playing their role this year and everyone is doing their job and everyone can trust that everyone is doing their job,” Duggins said. “It’s definitely a good feeling. We have all worked hard and the chemistry on the court shows.”
The Eagles were scheduled to play SWR earlier this week. Win or lose, Kennell and the players realize there’s a long way to go this season. And they are going to meet that schedule one match at a time.