Center head volleyball coach Christie Benton set her teams' sights on the Sept. 24 opening of District 18-3A play when taking on the task of building last year's team that didn't a single league contest. She said she wanted to find the right combination of players who would give her the necessary effort to compete in the tough league.
With that date just over a week away Benton has had plenty of reason to have optimism after the Lady Riders performed strong at the Woodville tournament last week and then went toe-to-toe with Jefferson Tuesday night in Roughrider Gymnasium before falling 3-2.
Time and time again the Center squad kept taking the Lady Bulldogs to the limit, with the Lady Riders winning Game 1, 25-22, falling 24-26 in Game 2, winning a dramatic Game 3, 29-27, before falling even in Game 4, 20-25.
Then, in the deciding game, Center kept pushing the Lady Bulldogs before dropping a 15-12 decision.
Still, Center (5-16-1) has already won as many games as they did in all of last year, and Benton said she feels her squad is ready for the supreme test Friday of hosting No.19-ranked Tatum, with the beginning of league action set to get underway next Saturday. There will be 9th, junior varsity and varsity matches against Tatum in Roughrider Gymnasium, with the freshmen getting underway at 5 p.m.
"What a hard-fought game we played against Jefferson," Benton said on Wednesday. "It was back and forth all evening and the girls really played their hearts out. If we clean up a few serves and passes we are the winner of that match - that's how close it was.
"It feels good being this close to district and seeing the girls come together with some fight and some purpose when they step out on the floor.
"We picked it up last week and stepped up our game a little more at the Woodville tournament last weekend (3-4-1 record), and I know playing Tatum will be a good test for us. If we play like we've been playing, it's anyone's match."
Benton said what she has been pleased with the most is the way her team has worked together in the tough matches and have continued to fight back and shown so much improvement and unity on the floor.
"I'm very proud of our effort and teamwork," she explained. "Being a team and lifting each other up when we get down is something I have put a lot of emphasis on this season. And it's not only the six girls playing on the court, but their teammates on the bench, cheering them on and encouraging them, keeping a positive energetic atmosphere whether we win each point or not.
"It's that kind of play that has begun turning this program around and getting us headed in the right direction and to where I want us to be by the time district play starts. Any team sport takes everyone working together and we're reaching that point and that makes me proud to coach them."
Benton said it was a solid team effort that helped the Lady Riders take Jefferson to the five-game limit on Tuesday.
Maria Valtierra produced 15 digs, one ace and 11 'good serves', to go along with an assists. Chakera Ingram, the Lady Riders' libero, was very consistent performance in the back row, according to Benton, finishing with 27 digs, three assists and four service aces.
Lacie Evans, one of Center's middle blockers, slammed nine kills, to go along with two blocks and an assist. Cassie Bush, another middle blocker, not only produced 14 good serves, but also planted four kills, picked up five blocks and tallied three digs and one ace.
Kemi Cleveland did not miss a serve, while recording one ace and putting nine other serves in. She also picked up eight digs, two kills and an assist.
Requanna Patton had six digs and an ace, Michaela Schulz chipped in five digs, a pair of kills and one assist.
Benton said Sykera Berry kept the team flowing on the court, picking up 16 assists, three aces and two kills. Elena Gonzalez tallied two digs, an ace and one kill.
Stephany Rodriguez added 17 digs and hustled well to the ball all night, the coach emphasized. She also had four assists, two aces and two kills. Ashlyn Johnson hit the ball hard, planting eight kills while picking up a dig.
Center will follow up Friday's matchup against Tatum with a visit to Beckville next Tuesday (4:30 p.m. - 9th,JV,V) and then open District 18-3A action on Saturday, Sept. 24, at Jasper with a noon start.
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