High school volleyball: South’s Rymer off to powerful start
By Mike London
LANDIS — Senior Anna Rymer misses the high-fives even more than the crowd noise from South Rowan’s vocal student section, a group that has vigorously embraced the school’s dominance in Central Carolina Conference volleyball.
The limits on touching — no high-fives and no postgame handshakes — are notable in 2020 COVID-19 volleyball, a sport known for colorful outbursts of pride and emotion, some spontaneous and some carefully choreographed.
So the 5-foot-10 Rymer, who made High School Overtime’s All-West squad as a junior, settles for celebrating stellar plays by teammates or her own kills with solo whirls, spins and claps.
“Normally, our student section helps me a lot by yelling for us, so it’s very different having just 25 (adults) in the bleachers,” Rymer said. “But I’ve tried to make the best of it. With no distractions, I’m even more focused than usual on the game itself.”
That focus is yielding encouraging results for South (4-0, 3-0), which hopes to stay at the top of CCC volleyball in a dramatically shortened season. Rymer had 27 kills in a sweep of North Davidson on Tuesday as South won its 25th straight CCC match. That was a career high. Her previous best was 21.
There weren’t many long rallies against North Davidson. Most South points were simply pass-set-spike. Rymer wasn’t unhappy about that.
“Most of the time your breathing isn’t affected that much with the mask, but when there’s a really long point, it can become a factor,” Rymer said. “The longest point we played on Tuesday, I finally was able to put one down to end it. Then I had to pull my mask down and get a breath.”
Playing masked volleyball isn’t natural or easy. There are more communication issues because it’s harder to hear teammates calling balls and there’s reduced vision. That’s critical for Rymer, who is patrolling the middle on the front row this season. Then she rotates across the back row.
“Setter and middle are the two hardest positions to play,” Rymer said. “The setter has to see everything and run all over the place. The middle has to watch all of the opposing hitters.”
Rymer has experience at just about every position. Volleyball started for the 17-year-old long ago. Some of her earliest memories are related to volleyball.
“My dad (Barry) was an assistant coach for Catawba’s women’s team, so I grew up running around the gym bleachers during those games,” Rymer said. “Those are good memories. Being in the gym always meant being happy. I grew up loving volleyball, and I was fortunate to have a dad who knows the game and has the same love for the game that I do. I think it’s the best game — a perfect combination of athleticism and technique.”
She started playing in the fifth grade at the YMCA, with her father coaching her.
She was always one of the taller kids. She experienced her final mini growth spurt as a freshman at South, when she was setting for the jayvee team.
She debuted on the South varsity as a sophomore. That was the 2018 season when coach Jenna Horne’s Raiders shared the CCC title with a 16-2 record. She was the setter and produced 462 assists. She added 152 digs, 93 kills, 32 service aces and 27 blocks, but her game was still developing. Her job that season was to set up two devastating hitters — senior Janiya Downs and junior Kira Rymer, Anna’s first cousin and life-long buddy.
In the fall of 2019, South had to adjust to not having Downs. Horne did so with a two-setter look that featured the talents of the Rymer cousins. The one on the front row set, with the other hitting. That system worked so well that South went 18-0 in the league and won a school-record 28 matches. Kira put up crazy stats and won CCC Player of the Year honors and shared county honors with West Rowan phenom Tori Hester.
As a junior, Anna was generally regarded as Kira’s sidekick, but she was a special player in her own right — 469 assists, 373 kills, 232 digs, 73 aces and 68 blocks. Anna’s hitting percentage of 59.2 (that’s calculated by subtracting hitting errors from kills and dividing by the number of attacks) was sensational. Thirty percent is considered exceptional efficiency.
While South ran the table in the CCC and reached the fourth round of the playoffs last fall, Anna believes the non-conference victory at Carson, a program South hadn’t beaten in a decade, was the turning point in the season. It was a victory that changed perceptions of the program. Horne knew South was good, but maybe that’s when everyone else started believing it.
“Carson was probably my favorite match ever,” Anna said. “Winning that one and having our students going over there to support us and being loud, I’ll always believe that was the match that shot us forward to the undefeated CCC season and to go as far as we did in the playoffs. It was awesome just to be part of it.”
Anna’s father is still on the South bench — serving as Horne’s assistant coach.
“That’s a good thing, but it also means that we’re going to keep talking about the match even after we get home,” Anna said with a laugh.
The conversations now include Anna’s little sister, Leah, a freshman who has taken over setting duties for South and freed up Anna to focus on hitting and defense.
Leah had 31 assists on Tuesday.
“Kira and I are intense players, but Leah is very laid-back and cool,” Anna said. “She’s been a great sister, we only have sisterly squabbles once in a while, and we all know she’s going to be the best volleyball player in the family. She started playing very young and has learned by playing against strong competition.”
As a senior, Anna’s role has changed. Kira isn’t there for the Raiders to lean on, so Anna does more. She’s happy to do it. She’s quiet, quieter than Kira was, but leading by example is not a problem.
“Anna knows what she can do, knows how hard she can hit the ball, but she’s never going to be cocky about it,” Horne said. “She’s so humble about her skills, but I think that makes the team look up to her even more. This team gets along well, best friends on and off the court. She’s a big part of that.”
Anna admits she goes through something of a personality transformation on the court.
The player is different than the low-key girl in the classroom.
“I hate making mistakes and I do want to win pretty badly,” Anna said. “I guess I’m a perfectionist. When I walk out there it’s like, ‘OK, let’s get down to business.'”
Anna looks slight and unassuming, but when the lights come on, she transforms into a powerful figure who plays bigger and taller than 5-10.
“Anna isn’t as physically imposing as Kira was, so you don’t expect her to hit with the kind of power that she does,” Horne said. “As players, they were similar in that they can do everything on a volleyball court well. They can set, pass, hit or defend.”
Kira played as a freshman this fall at Columbia International University in Columbia, S.C., a small school with a solid volleyball program. For Kira, it has proven to be the right fit athletically, academically and socially.
Kira is home now for the semester break and gives Anna an occasional recruiting pitch for Columbia International, but Anna hasn’t made her mind up yet about her next destination. What she does know is that she’ll be going to college and playing volleyball. She’s a great student. Her potential college majors are forensic science, education or business.
“For now, it’s just great to have Kira back with us for a little while,” Anna said. “We’re more than cousins. She’s been at my side since I was born and we were doubles partners and warmup partners on the volleyball team as well as teammates. She advises me about what to expect next year. The biggest thing, she says, is to pick a school where I’ll be happy even if I were to be injured and couldn’t play volleyball.”
The scheduled conclusion of South’s regular season —matches against improved East Rowan and perennially stout Carson, teams from the strong 3A North Piedmont Conference — will be interesting. Carson has started slowly, but it’s still Carson — Coach Kelan Rogers, Jaden Vaughn, Kary Hales.
South also will face major hurdles in the CCC. One of the biggest comes today when the Raiders make the trip up to Oak Grove, a program that started in the fall of 2017 with a group of freshmen. Now those freshmen are seasoned seniors.
“We know Oak Grove will be one of the best teams in our league,” Anna said. “And Central Davidson is always a hard match.”
So is West Davidson, which was the last CCC team to beat South. The Green Dragons topped South on Sept. 27, 2018, and stopped the Raiders again a few weeks later in the championship game of the CCC tournament.
Since then, there have been a lot of kills and digs and blocks and sets by Rymers and a lot of triumphs by the Raiders.
This short season will end before you know it, but Anna plans to enjoy every minute — even with a mask and even without high-fives.
“Volleyball has been such a big part of my life,” Anna said. “The game has brought me so much fun, so many opportunities and so many friends. I can tell you this — one day my own kids will be playing volleyball.”