High school volleyball: South’s Payton Black a solid gold digger

Published 12:02 am Sunday, November 28, 2021

By Mike London

LANDIS— Even COVID couldn’t stop South Rowan libero Payton Black from a goal she set long ago of 2,000 career digs.

Black may be the best libero in program history and is one of the Post’s co-players of the year for Rowan County. She had 611 digs as a senior and made the 35-dig match a common occurrence. She finished her four years as a human shovel with 2,098 digs.

“I’ve never seen anyone read the court like she can,” South head coach Jenna Horne said. “And she not only knows exactly where the ball is going, she can get there really quick.”

Black played in exactly 100 matches for South. The Raiders won 82. South was 66-8 in her home games.

A train of exceptional hitters came through South during her days in red and black  — Janiya Downs, Kira Rymer, Anna Rymer, her younger sister Cameron — but Payton Black was always the constant who anchored the Raiders’ defense.

“I learned a lot about the game in four years and I learned a lot about myself,” Black said.

It’s not an understatement to say volleyball changed her life. Volleyball created a personality transformation from basically shy to outgoing leader. Volleyball made her someone who could stand up and speak in front of strangers. Volleyball made her someone everyone in the school knew and looked up to.

“When you play libero, you have to be vocal,” Black said. “You have to be able to communicate, to make quick decisions, to be able to tell people where to go. Being a libero, it puts you out there.”

She found volleyball around age 12 at the South YMCA. Barry Rymer, a long-time assistant coach at South, discovered that Payton and Cameron Black were pupils who soaked up information quickly.

“He showed us the different skills and I started getting excited about the game,” Black said. “It was great being able to play a sport with my sister, and I think it’s always been an advantage having a sister as a teammate. We could always pick each other up.”

When Black arrived as South as a freshman, the Raiders had dominant hitters in Downs and Kira Rymer. Horne asked Black to try libero, a critical defensive position.

“I’d always been a hitter, but they didn’t need me to hit,” Black said. “It meant learning something new, but it was a way to get on the court as a freshman. I liked it. I started setting some goals for myself.”

She reached a big goal in the final game of her sophomore season — 1,000 digs. South went 28-2 that season and the Raiders weren’t stopped until they ran into state champ Fred T. Foard in the quarterfinals.

She was halfway home, so she started thinking realistically about 2,000 digs for her career.

South had huge expectations for the 2019-20 season, but COVID put everything on hold. The Raiders were able to play roughly 60 percent of a normal season — 17 matches. Black made them all count, posting 486 digs in 54 sets. That’s nine digs per set.

“That season could have ended at any time, and we knew it,” Black said. “I tried to play every one of those matches like it was the last one.”

She had 1,487 career digs going into her senior season, still in range of 2,000 — if she could stay healthy, if everything went smoothly, if COVID didn’t create issues.

For a while, it looked like she might fall short of 2,000, but South played several five-set matches. She got 45 digs against Carson and 43 against Lake Norman Charter.

Black played the back row for South like a baseball center fielder. If she could get to it, she took it. Her teammates knew she was going to make a good pass, even on the move.

“Payton always was the glue that held our teams together, that level-headed person that not only does her job, but keeps every teammate motivated,” Horne said. “She ran our defense for a very long time. We had never had to worry a lot about defense.”

On Senior Night, Oct. 14, in front of a huge crowd, Black reached the 2,000 milestone with 29 digs against West Rowan. South lost in five sets, but it probably was the best the Raiders played all season.

“Coach Horne told me during the match that I’d passed 2,000, but they didn’t stop the match or anything like that,” Black said. “That was a pretty intense match.”

She totaled 56 digs in her last two matches — a playoff victory at Lake Norman Charter and the season-ending loss at West Henderson.

Black hasn’t ruled out playing volleyball in college, but that’s still up in the air.

She plans a nursing major and would have to find the right fit.