Fred T. Foard head volleyball coach Meredith Lombardi always knew she wanted to come back to her alma mater to coach. Her assistant, Jordan Ledford, not so much.
The two took up the reins of the Tigers' program for the 2018 season and they provided a link back to the days when Foard volleyball was queen of the land. Ledford played for the 2003 and 2005 3A state championship teams, the last two of the six from which the banners are displayed on the Copas Gym wall. Lombardi was a freshman on the 2005 team, though she readily states that she was a call-up and didn’t remember playing.
Both went on to play college volleyball at Lenoir-Rhyne. But after the two graduated, Lombardi was ready to move into coaching, while Ledford went into the private sector. After a year as the head coach at Draughn in 2014, Lombardi was as assistant at South Caldwell for three seasons. However, the goal was always to return home.
“To be honest,” said Lombardi, “one of my goals in my career was to come back here and to coach these girls and to take them to state, just like us being a part of it in 2005.”
As she put a staff together, Lombardi called on her former teammate to come and coach. It was actually more pleading than a formal invitation. When Ledford was asked why she came back to coach, Lombardi chirped in, “I begged her.”
Ledford admitted some reluctance to getting into coaching, but now she's hooked.
“Now, I can’t imagine my life without it,” Ledford said. “These girls, you spend so much time with them, this is part of my life.”
In looking ahead to tonight's 2A state championship against Ayden-Grifton, which will be played at Capel Arena at Fayetteville State, both coaches agreed they see a lot of their old team in the current squad of players with the ability to work hard in preparation and the heart to do what it takes on the court.
“That’s what I look at, when I look at the teams I played for,” Ledford said. “We worked very hard and we had that heart. We weren’t going to be beat.”
With Lombardi’s goal of taking her own team to state at hand, she and the players are ready for the challenge.
“It’s funny,” said Lombardi. “All the time, it’s like, ‘One game at a time, one game at a time.’ And now we’re there. We don’t have anywhere else to go. Let’s stop talking about it and let’s do it.”
NCHSAA 2A STATE VOLLEYBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
FRED T. FOARD vs. AYDEN-GRIFTON
CAPEL ARENA, FAYETTEVILLE STATE, 7:30 P.M.
FRED T. FOARD TIGERS (31-1)
HEAD COACH: Michelle Lombardi (55-4, second season). ASSISTANTS: Jordan Ledford, Bob Harrison, Dave Hefner.
ROSTER: Defensive specialist: Makenzie Sutton, Sr.; Macy Ward, Sr.; Lyndsie Warren, So. Libero: Dara Shaffer, Sr. Middle Blocker: Averie Dale, Fr,; Martina Foster, So.; Sierra Ward, Sr. Outside hitter: Laney Craig, Fr.; Megan Dorsey, Jr.; Michelle Thao, Jr. Right side hitter: Katrina Cloer, Jr.; Jamianne Foster, Jr. Setter: Haley Johnston, So.; Sarah Lingle, So.
PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: Oct. 26 vs. No. 32 South Point (3-0); Oct. 29 vs. No. 17 East Lincoln (3-0); Oct. 31 vs. No. 8 R-S Central (3-0); Nov. 2 vs. No. 5 South Rowan (3-0); Nov. 5 vs. No. 2 Brevard (3-0).
Three-set sweeps have been the norm for the Tigers this season and they seem to be getting better in the playoffs. Since the only loss to 3A quarterfinalist Watauga, Foard has swept the last 10 matches. During the playoffs, opponents have scored 20 or more points just three of the 15 sets. Foard has 28 sweeps this season, 21 against 2019 playoff teams. The Tigers have won 95 of 101 sets.
Versatility is a key for the Tigers. Several players have the ability to play at the front of the net and stay on the floor to play the back line as well. Michelle Thao and Megan Dorsey are the main threats on offense with Sierra Ward and Martina Foster both a formidable defensive and offensive threat in the middle. Dara Shaffer leads a defensive unit that take on the opposing hitters on the backline and often cause frustration to the point of causing errors. The group stands fearlessly for big hits, but quickly can back up the front for dink shots. Haley Johnston and Sarah Lingle are both effective setters for the front with Lingle joining Jamianne Foster on the right side.
AYDEN-GRIFTON CHARGERS (22-5)
HEAD COACH: Linda Bryant (10th season). ASSISTANTS: Nicole Waters.
ROSTER: Defensive specialist: Aubrie Jones, So.; Yaneth Meso, So. Libero: Paige Stallings, Jr. Middle Blocker: Ashlee Capizzi, So.; Emily Dykes, Sr.; Aaleyah Garris, Sr. Outside hitter: Ivy Hood, Sr.; Abby Langemann, So.; Mikayla Olejar, Sr.; Alyssa Rouse, Fr.; Right side hitter: Alexia Bryant, Sr.; Emma Jones, Jr.; Summer Little, Jr. Setter: Holly Cannon, So.; Caroline Congleton, Sr.
PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: Oct. 26 vs. No. 30 Roanoke Rapids (3-0); Oct. 29 vs. No. 19 Ledford (3-0); Oct. 31 vs. No. 6 McMichael (3-0); Nov. 2 vs. No. 2 Carrboro (3-2); Nov. 5 vs. No. 1 Wheatmore (3-1).
It took a while for the Chargers and coach Linda Bryant to grow the program together. After starting with Ayden-Grifton in 2010, the squad didn’t make the playoffs for the first time until 2012. This is the eighth straight year in the postseason, but for the first five years the Chargers never won a set. That all changed in 2017 and Bryant has led Ayden-Grifton to a 66-10 mark the last three years and now the first state final in school history. After bowing out in the quarterfinals the last two years, the Chargers, who won the Eastern Carolina 2A Conference, finally broke through and avenged elimination defeats from the previous two years. Ayden-Grifton took out Carrboro — which beat it in 2017 — in the quarterfinals and Wheatmore — which did the job in 2018 — in the East Regional.
The common denominator for all three seasons has been the duo of Alexia Bryant and Emily Dykes. Bryant led the team in kills as a freshman and sophomore and has been in the top three as an upperclassman. Dykes leads the team this year in kills after she was second in 2018. Dykes also leads the team in aces and blocks. Sophomore Holly Cannon has nearly 90 percent of the team’s assists.
Note: For more details on each team in tonight's 2A state championship match, visit www.hickoryrecord.com.