High school volleyball: Falcons have size and experience

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 8, 2021

MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan graduated three players, including Queens signee KK Dowling and vocal leader Allison Ennis, but the Falcons have a deep, experienced and potentially powerful team.

Senior Kelcie Love was second on the team in kills as a junior and is expected to be one of the county’s top hitters. She’ll be on the court for more rotations than in the past, as she continues to improve her mobility.

“She’s making the transition from middle to outside this year, and that’s an adjustment,” head coach Jan Dowling said. “You don’t get those easy kills that come your way in the middle, but you get more sets and you generally get better sets.”

Emma Clarke, a three-sport phenom, was impactful as a freshman last season. She’ll be a force operating at the net with Love.

“Very coachable, as long as I can relate a volleyball situation to softball or basketball,” Dowling said with a laugh. “She’s just really talented — a 6-foot beast.”

Noe Gaeta has been a smooth setter for two seasons and made good decisions during the Falcons’ powerful stretch run to the 3A state semifinals in 2019 after Allison Ennis was injured.  Gaeta will get the ball to Clarke and Love in positions where they can put it down.

West’s most improved player is Anna Grace Blackledge, a junior who should get her share of kills.

Blackledge has done a ton of fitness work in the off season. She’s lighter. She’s reacting quicker and jumping higher.

“A coach who saw us the other day asked me if she was new,” Dowling said. “We had her last year, but not like this. She’s a different player.”

West has several defensive types with plenty of experience. That group includes junior Brooke Kennerly and senior Kenadi Sproul.

Ashlee Ennis and Madelyn VonCanon are juniors with a wide range of skills, so they could have multiple roles. Ennis is one of West’s best diggers, but she also could hit some.

Karsen Simpson, Regan Roakes, Maia Gaeta, Mia Arntsen and D’Ajua “Dede” Cuthbertson provide depth. They’ve all been on the floor for the varsity team.

Dowling, who will be assisted by former South Rowan and Lenoir-Rhyne player Emma Pope, usually works a lot of people into a match, so they’ll all get chances to help.

It was tough for West not making the playoffs in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, especially after setting school records in 2019, but the Falcons have a good chance to get back on track.

“COVID hurt us a lot,” Dowling said. “Without a normal off-season and then that very short season, it was over before we ever put it all together. I’ll be disappointed if we can’t bounce back this year.”

West will be in an eight-team South Piedmont Conference that includes three Cabarrus schools, three county rivals and Lake Norman Charter, a good volleyball school.

West wasn’t required to play North Iredell and South Iredell, but Dowling has those always stout rivals on the schedule as non-conference opponents.

Actually, the whole non-conference schedule promises to be challenging.

“I want us to have to work and I want us to play the best teams that we can non-conference,” Dowling said. “That’s how we’ll find out what we need to work on. You’re not going to win every single match. Kids need to learn how to lose and they need to learn how to grind.”

West Rowan volleyball 

Head coach: Physical education teacher Jan Dowling (7th year at West, 96-46)

2020-21: 9-4 overall,  7-3 North Piedmont Conference (tied, 2nd)

New league: South Piedmont Conference (Carson, East Rowan, South Rowan, Central Cabarrus, NW Cabarrus, Concord, Lake Norman Charter)

Playoffs: Did not make playoffs

Players to watch: Senior Kelcie Love, juniors Noe Gaeta and Ashlee Ennis, sophomore Emma Clarke