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Alamance Acers volleyball team navigates challenges of season, soak in state title glory


David Kehrli   | Times-News

Postgame meals have become a tradition of sorts for the Alamance Acers varsity volleyball team.

“Those can get kind of crazy, but it definitely brings the team together,” senior Sarah Harrington said. “We didn’t have quite as many this season because restaurants, some of them didn’t have in-person seating, but we still made it work.”

An area homeschool team that included eight seniors broke bread for the final time last month, doing so in a unique way meant for these times of coronavirus.

“We got together and sat around and ate all the different takeout meals that we had brought,” Harrington said. “We all had just a really good time sitting and talking about the game we had just played. Just to be together that last time. It’s always such a goofy and relaxed environment together.”

It was time to reminisce and refuel their palettes while sharing the sweet taste of championship victory with takeout specials, after pouring it all out on a Greensboro court to claim the North Carolinians for Home Education Athletic Conference state championship.

The Acers defeated North Wake in five sets (by scores of 27-25, 25-8, 23-25, 19-25, 15-12), completing an undefeated season and a multi-year pursuit of a state title, once on the verge of slipping away due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve been chasing a state title since we won the middle school championship in 2016,” Harrington said. “With so many of us as seniors, we kind of knew that this had to be our year. The team that we beat in the final is the team that we beat in 2016 to win the middle school championship. It was kind of a nice, full-circle moment for all of us.”

Unsure at one point if the season would even get off the ground, winning it all under these circumstances made it all the more special.

“We usually start practices early in the summer and we weren’t able to do that this year,” senior Lily Barnhill said. “We all kind of had our hopes down; we knew it probably wasn’t going to happen, but when we got the call that it was going to happen, we were all really excited. We were just so lucky to be able to get that season.”

Barnhill suffered a sprained wrist in the third set of the championship match. With North Wake trailing 2-0 and constructing a comeback that would force a decisive fifth set, Barnhill said she knew she had to power through the pain.

“I just knew that in that moment it didn’t matter that it hurt so bad,” she said. “I just wanted to play and I just wanted to win because I knew there wasn’t anybody else to go in for me. We just had to deal with it and keep playing.”

The Alamance Acers are made up of homeschool athletes from several counties, including Alamance, Caswell, Forsyth, Guilford and Orange. Many of them have played together for years.

“I think kind of the fragility of it all made us appreciate every practice and game 100 times more,” Harrington said. “At any point, it could have been shut down, so we didn’t take anything for granted. It really put it in perspective how fortunate we were to be able to play.”

The Acers practice and play home matches at Bethel Baptist Church in Graham.

“That is one of the biggest blessings for our team,” said Martha Harrington, one of the team’s directors. “If it wasn't for them most years, I don't know that we would be able to afford to field a team because gym space, especially for volleyball, is very expensive. The homeschool families have to provide everything. 

“Bethel Baptist, they are so very generous with their gym. They were actually two teams in our league that were not able to even have teams this year, because they could not get in their gyms.”

The unique structure of a homeschool team means parents have to pull together to make things work.

“The whole program is a tight-knit program because the parents are the ones that are making everything happen,” Martha Harrington said. “It’s not like in a private or public school, there’s coaches there or the school takes care of it. If we want to have a team, we have to do it.”

In the self-sufficient program, parents pitch in a variety of ways, including scorekeeping, libero tracking, line judging and more.

“All the parents put the work in to actually be able to do everything,” Barnhill said. “Our parents would check temperatures before the game, make sure everyone was OK to come in. It was just really nice of them to all pull together as a team.”

Jocelyn Drye, one of the team's directors, handled the implementation of coronavirus protocols and scheduling, which proved to be a challenge during a pandemic.

“(The schedule) changed dramatically," Martha Harrington said. "We normally have 18 to 20 games. Regular-season games, we ended up only having eight. We were scheduled to play The Burlington School and they moved their season to February.”

Maddy Drye, Elizabeth Jackson and Sophia Knudson were named to the all-tournament team. Barnhill, Abigail Cline, Drye, Jackson and Trinity Williams each earned all-conference honors. Jackson was named both all-conference and all-tournament Most Valuable Player.

Charlie Oakley, varsity coach of the Acers, was named the league's Coach of the Year. Oakley previously coached at Cedar Ridge High School.

Morgan Maner, who played four years in college on the Elon volleyball team, coaches the program's junior varsity team, which finished as the state runner-up.

Once unsure if they’d be able to step on a volleyball court, the Acers were thrilled to be crowned on it.

“Thinking that you’re not going to have a season to winning the state championship, that’s a complete turnaround,” Barnhill said. “I just feel so grateful for our team and all the girls who put in the work to be able to win this for us.”

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