SILER CITY — Back when he was a college student at North Carolina A&T, Johnny Alston was a self-described “psych lover.” Although it wasn’t his major, Alston took a …
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SILER CITY — Back when he was a college student at North Carolina A&T, Johnny Alston was a self-described “psych lover.” Although it wasn’t his major, Alston took a behavioral analysis class, burned through issues of Psychology Today and forged a lifelong fascination with the subject.
So when Alston’s Chatham Charter volleyball team found itself in a precarious situation last Thursday — up 2-1 on Woods Charter, having dropped the third set in disappointing fashion and facing a crucial fourth set with a chance to end the match — the head coach went back to his psych roots.
And it worked.
It wasn’t anything too Zimbardo-esque, mind you. Rather, it was a simple three-word phrase, one Alston repeated calmly to his players as he paced the sidelines of the Knights’ gym: “Everyone’s a senior.”
“You expect a lot out of your senior players,” Alston said in a post-match interview. “When the going gets tough, you expect them to step up instead of going into a shell. Saying ‘Everyone’s a senior,’ that causes some of the underclassmen to raise it up a little bit: ‘Coach thinks I’m a senior!’”
He smiled, then continued: “So — hopefully — a little psychology involved.”
It wasn’t the only reason Chatham Charter cruised to a nine-point fourth-set victory to finish off Woods Charter (25-11, 25-21, 23-25, 25-16). But middle hitter Breanna Spinks, one of five true seniors on the Knights’ roster, said her coach’s impromptu chant didn’t exactly hurt either.
“I think everybody started playing it up,” she said. “Especially with this being a varsity team.”
Chatham Charter needed the boost. The Knights (2-2) won the first set easily and grinded out the second against a Wolves team that “came out weak,” as Woods Charter junior setter Ada Green put it.
Spinks, Morgan Lineberry and Riley Bennett were dominating up front, and the younger back line was holding its own, too. Then head coach Scott Green’s Woods Charter squad came to life.
The Wolves played the third set to 11-11 and seized the lead just a few points later. They also won the longest point of the match — an absurd rally in which each team had at least 10 possessions — to stay up 16-13.
And after a few well-placed kills by freshman outside hitter Lexi Smollen and a match-ending Chatham Charter error, the Wolves had cut their deficit to a manageable 2-1.
“We managed to pull ourselves together,” Scott Green said.
That set the stage for an uber-important fourth set. Alston was admittedly worried.
Despite Woods Charter’s 1-3 record entering the match, he regarded the Wolves as a dangerous and well coached team in the Central Tar Heel 1A Conference. Plus, Chatham Charter was still adjusting to a long layoff — days after losing 3-1 at Cornerstone Charter on Nov. 20, the Knights learned of a positive coronavirus case within the team and had to cease activities for two weeks.
Add in their loss to Research Triangle last Tuesday (a 3-0 sweep) and the Knights had gone nearly a month without a win. Confidence-wise, it wasn’t an ideal situation.
“That's a big thing w these girls: the mental aspect,” Alston said, tapping the side of his head.
Spinks concurred: “It’s really just a mental thing. After the (third-set) loss, you have to really want it —way more than you did.”
So in his pre-set huddle, Alston reminded his team for the first time: “Everyone’s a senior.” He kept repeating it with gradual excitement as Chatham Charter built up a sizable lead — 15-6, 17-10, 19-12, 22-15 — behind a well-rounded attack that, to his point, gave off the vibe off a very experienced group.
Sophomore Tamaya Walden, for example, finished with five kills, 19 digs, four aces and zero service errors while playing substantially for the first time this season. And sophomore Alison Perez had a team-high 16 assists, setting up older teammates along Chatham Charter’s front line for kills all night long.
Fittingly, it was Lineberry — another true senior — who delivered the final kill of the match, a soft drop shot that landed in the middle of two Woods Charter defenders to end the set and match at 25-16.
To Alston, though, everyone else on the court last Thursday may as well have been one, too.
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