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Despite early-season hole, Walden says league play could be key to Bears’ playoff push

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Chatham Central is in the midst of its varsity women’s volleyball season, but has gotten off to a slow start after dropping four straight matches to Salisbury, Lee County, Southern Lee and Asheboro. However, the team’s 1-5 start — including four of its five defeats coming to 3A schools — may not be indicative of its talent level.

Coming off of a 7-5 pandemic-shortened season last year, the Bears are looking to find an identity among both its youth and its veterans, all striving to replace the high level of production they lost to graduation over the summer.

With Chatham Central’s season in full swing, the News + Record sat down with Bears fourth-year head coach Brett Walden to discuss his passion for both volleyball and baseball, his team’s chances of bouncing back from its 1-5 hole and his impressions of his team after the first five games of the season.

What have you learned over the last four years being both the head volleyball and baseball coach that you can apply to both sports? How are those two sports similar?

BRETT WALDEN: They are different. Baseball’s kind of second nature to me because 30-plus years of my life I’ve been involved in that game, where volleyball, not as much. With volleyball now, with the NFHS Network, you can go watch teams before you play them. Whereas baseball’s more a game of execution, if you do your job and don’t beat yourself, you can be successful. In volleyball, if you can figure out who their least-best passer is, for example, you can kind of pick on them and you can do some things. I think they’re really similar in that you’re dealing with kids. It’s obviously different because it’s guys vs. girls and it’s different in some ways, but really you’re dealing with kids either way. The coaching aspect of it, as far as dealing with kids, is pretty similar.

Also, one similarity that I kind of like is that you can’t run out the clock in either sport. In baseball, you’ve got to get them out and in volleyball, you’ve got to score points. There is no clock in either sport, so there are really no gimmicks you can employ. You’ve got to try to beat the other team, which is fun. You can’t get a lead and hold the ball like you can in basketball and football and things like that.

Despite it not being your first sport, what have you enjoyed about coaching volleyball over the last four seasons?

One thing I like is that it’s pretty fast-paced. Momentum is so key in volleyball, whereas in baseball, you have moments of lots of action and then it kind of settles back in and then you may not have much action. At least to the novice fan, there doesn’t appear to be much action, but in volleyball it’s constant movement. To me, it can be really exciting the entire time you’re out there.

Through five games this year, Chatham Central (1A) is 1-5, but almost all of those losses have come against schools that are bigger, such as Lee County and Southern Lee (both 3A schools). Would you say that your losing record, then, might be a little misleading?

Yeah, I think we’ve played good teams, we’ve definitely done that. We graduated a lot of production this summer. Our best blocker, Savannah Stillwell, graduated. Our best outside hitter, Grace Jones, graduated. Lindsay Polston was our varsity setter for three years. And so this is my first year with a new setter, it being my fourth year. Our libero, Tanner Little, graduated, so there’s just a lot of experience and talent that we graduated.

Our two outside hitters are sophomore Cassie McKeithan and freshman Karaleigh Dodson and those are our two best hitters. We had to actually bring them up and let them play. Senior Taylor Poe was willing to move from outside to middle and she’s done a good job with that, too, but the only middle we brought back from last year is senior Ivey Tillman, and I think right now she leads us in blocks. She’s played well and Taylor’s played well learning a new position since she’s always been an outside and she was willing to move as a senior to help us out and let us hit a little bit better.

We’ve got two setters that we’re using, senior Lindsey Johnson — who was our backup setter over the past couple of years; she came up early as a sophomore and was kind of a backup setter for two years and now she’s setting a lot more — and senior Carleigh Gentry, who was kind of a backup setter on varsity last year, and I don’t think she set at all last year. Even the one game when Lindsay Polston was out, Lindsey Johnson actually set that game, so Carleigh hadn’t set since sophomore year on J.V. They’ve done a good job. We’ve got senior Sadie Gaines as our libero this year, too.

I really think we’re going to win some games before it’s over with, and you’re right, we’ve played a good schedule so far. I’m hoping that it’ll pay off once we get into conference play and we start playing the 1As and 2As.

Starting 1-5 can obviously be discouraging, but what are your expectations for the rest of the season, especially once you get into conference play?

In both baseball and volleyball, I always kind of look at what we return, what we’ve got coming up, how much youth there is, how much the players that are having to play now have played, how much experience we’ve got. I don’t really tell anybody, I just say, “OK, if this is our record at the end of the year, I’ll be pretty happy with that.” I really thought we would be 2-3, maybe 3-2, right now because we played Lee County fairly well, but both times we just couldn’t quite get over the hump. With Salisbury, I felt like they were not better than us; we just didn’t play as well as I thought we could have, but we still have to go over there later in the year. Looking at the league and what of the rest of the league returns, I think we can finish in the top half of the league once we get in league play. I definitely think we’re a playoff team just because of the way the new power rankings work. I think playing a good schedule helps us out.

Who are some of the players you’re the most impressed with so far this season?

I would say definitely Carleigh Gentry and Lindsey Johnson, who haven’t set a lot over the past couple of years, but are running the 6-2 rotation very well and putting our young hitters in a situation where they can be successful. I would say those two, for sure.

What have you seen as some of the positives of this young season, regardless of the results?

Cassie McKeithan and Karaleigh Dodson, our younger hitters, haven’t played much before this season. I think Karaleigh hasn’t played any high school volleyball and then Cassie’s only gotten the condensed season with the COVID protocols and a bunch of schools not fielding J.V. last year, so Cassie’s only had six high school games at the J.V. level. For them to have had, between the two of them, only six high school games, none at the varsity level, they’ve come on pretty quickly and have been pretty effective for us.

It sounds like with McKeithan and Dodson and some of the other younger players, Chatham Central might be a lot better down the road. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I agree. Our freshman class is really, really strong this year. Our J.V. team hasn’t lost yet. They’ve beaten Lee County twice and they’ve beaten Southern Lee and Salisbury, so our J.V. team is 4-0. I think we brought up the ones that we felt could help us win right now, but we wanted to make sure they got the most playing time possible because I think we’ll probably — with us having six seniors this year and only having four returners next year — have to go young again next year, but we’ve got some good, young talent in a really strong freshman class.

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