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Bluestone volleyball getting set for new season

South Boston News
From left, Grace Newcomb, Megan Murphy, Jamison Dahl, Brooke Conwell, UNC volleyball player Parker Austin, Lillie Puryear, Elena Bailey, Skylar King and Emma Newcomb. / August 04, 2021
Bluestone volleyball players recently attended a camp hosted at the University Of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as the 2021 season quickly approaches.

Participation in the camp was a normal feature of preseason preparations before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all sports in March 2020. The camp is led by UNC coach Joe Sagula.

Bluestone head coach Darlynn Oxendine said the return to UNC was good for the girls and coaches. This past week the high school team was in Lunenburg County attending a two-day volleyball camp.

It had been a year since the girls last attended the UNC camp. Oxendine said she and her husband Randy, who coaches the jayvee volleyball squad, enjoyed seeing the girls back on the floor — making good plays, mistakes and all that.

“Absolutely amazing,” Oxendine said, describing how it felt to see her girls playing and competing again. “I had a good time, Randy had a good time watching them play, watching them make errors, watching them do good — seeing what they need to learn to do and what they forgot, it was fun.”

Bluestone is back with a full schedule of 20 games this fall. Up from the 12 that were allowed under the VHSL's Champions +1 calendar.

“We only have two varsity players back, Emma Newcomb and Trista Newcomb,” Oxendine said. Both are very experienced, intelligent and powerful players and good friends, but no relation. The girls were entering their junior year when the 2020 season was canceled.

“We do have a very energetic group of jayvee girls that have moved up,” she said. “After two years all those little jayvee players will be varsity and they had a good coach, Randy. So, they know our system but it’s just hard when you were a jayvee player to [suddenly] be a starter on varsity.”

The 2019 team advanced the furthest in the history of the program. Losing to King William County in the regional semifinal, Bluestone missed qualifying for the VHSL state tournament by that one match. Emma Newcomb was named the James River District Player of the Year that season, receiving all-conference honors also.

2020 was already being looked upon as the year Bluestone would go to the VHSL state tournament, but the coronavirus kept that from happening. The return to Bluestone volleyball was something that the Oxendines had looked forward to as Mecklenburg County Public Schools canceled fall and winter sports last year during the pandemic.

This year’s team will be young. Oxendine said that youth brings real skills and toughness to the court. While away from school, several girls experienced solid growth physically and continued to play.

“We have some upcoming talent that is very, very good. Elena Bailey, a jayvee player, grew six inches and did a tremendous job from 5’ to 5’6”, 5’7”. Elena did a great job at middle [at the camp]. Grace Newcomb, she has grown and is about 5’7”.

“They all at camp looked like they knew what they were doing,” Oxendine said of her younger players. “We have a new player that’s coming in too, Brooke Conwell, we’re looking forward to her learning our system. She really tried at camp as all the girls did. It was just amazing because whenever they needed a team to demonstrate [court skills] they chose Bluestone.”

Coaches at the camp told Oxendine that the Bluestone girls hustled like they’d never seen and weren’t scared of anything — characteristics the Oxendines work to impart in all of their players

“They played Carolina in the first game,” Oxendine said proudly. “Carolina had their own team at camp and they had us against Carolina the first game of the tournament and came they over to me and said the reason we put you there first was because we knew your girls won’t scared of nothing and we knew they were ready. I thought that was a compliment to the girls. They did enjoy playing the Carolina team.”

Oxendine said she and Randy don’t have preseason voluntary workouts as most other sports do. The coach noted with all the volleyball activities the girls participate in throughout the year, they see it as just being too much.

“Well, I’ll give my opinion and let everybody else make their own — we don’t do preseason conditioning but we do Junior Olympics,” Oxendine said. “Actually last year several players on our team — more than I can count on my hand — played travel volleyball.

“So see, in my opinion when you finish in November and then start back with traveling volleyball from November to April and then you go to camp in the summer — you’ve got a life. You want to go to vacations with your family, there’s other sports you want to play — so try to make it fun and not a job.

“This is my 46th year coaching and we’ve never done conditioning in the summer. We just aren’t into conditioning during the summer because we want the kids to have a life.”

As much as some people may want to deny or ignore what’s a reality, COVID-19 and its variants are still causing havoc upon the U.S. and around the world. Last year when kids were cleared for a few weeks by the School Board to begin preseason conditioning, Oxendine said they wouldn’t do so unless they were mandated.

She said at that time, “I personally don’t want to be a part of being unsafe with any of my players because I love ‘em to death. If nobody were getting it, it really wouldn’t bother me.

“The safety issues, that’s why I’m really concerned. Whatever they want us to do, if they mandate us doing it, I would do it. Because I would never desert my team, my children.”

Asked how she felt about returning to competing this season, Oxendine said she is good with it, for now. She said when her girls were at the UNC camp they masked up, as did UNC players. Some other teams participating in the camp chose not to.

Oxendine acknowledged that no athlete likes to wear the mask, it’s not a normal part of their uniform or playing gear, and mask wearing can be constricting physically.

Yet she says her girls have seen enough to know that not everyone has your back, so they have to look out for each other. Oxendine says it’s always safety first.

“If Mecklenburg County feels like the students don’t have to wear mask, then I’ll allow my team and me and Randy to discuss that,” Oxendine said. “But in the meantime it looks like masks are the safest way. None of them like the masks but they do like the safety.”

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