Photo by Christine Troyke
Occasionally, an individual athlete can become an overriding symbol of the program he or she plays for.
And it's difficult to think of Buford's volleyball team without Elizabeth Darden.
After all, the senior libero has been a part of the Wolves program since it began five years ago.
That was even before she actually entered high school as she played on the junior varsity and was a late-season varsity call-up as an eighth-grader.
"You're actually not allowed to participate on varsity (as an eighth-grader)," Darden recalled. "I was on the JV team, and I got pulled up to varsity (late in the season) to observe and learn. They had a very good libero named Angela Morgan, and I was told to mimic everything she did. But I was scared out of my mind. My parents actually thought it was a joke when (then head) Coach (Marianne) Cagle called me up."
In the four seasons since Darden first donned the green and gold uniform, Buford has been a strong competitor in some of the toughest area alignments in Class AA/A volleyball.
The Wolves have twice qualified for the state tournament in her career, despite having to compete with five-time state champion Wesleyan and other top programs like Greater Atlanta Christian, Providence Christian and Hebron Christian for a spot in the postseason year in and year out.
Through it all, Darden has been a big reason why as one of Gwinnett County's premier defensive players.
So it's difficult for head coach Hadli Daniels to imagine the Wolves program without her.
"I don't know what we're going to do without her," said Daniels, who served as an assistant to Cagle before becoming Buford's head coach this season. "She's been with the program since middle school, and she's owned the backcourt.
"She really likes the whole court to herself. Even as an eighth-grader, she covered the entire court. She will get to any ball she can. She had a dig (last weekend) that's the best I've ever seen. She fell into the bench and over the chairs to get a ball, and then came back onto the court and dug the next ball to help us win the point."
Just how much of a defensive force has Darden been?
Already the owner of many of Buford's school records for digs, including most in a single season (298) and single match (21), she has added 201 digs in just 19 matches so far this season.
She has also improved her other skills to make her an even more complete player, especially at the service line, where she has 12 aces and a 95 percent accuracy rate this season.
"The way I play, no matter where the ball is, that's where I want to be," Darden said. "I love to see the hitters' faces when I dig a ball they thought I couldn't get to.
"I started playing setter (for the junior varsity) in the eighth grade, but I guess they saw that in me. I thought of it as a challenge."
Not bad for someone who had never had any experience with volleyball prior to joining the program.
"I'd never played volleyball. I'd never really seen volleyball. I had not really known anything about it," Darden recalled. "I'd mainly played soccer and basketball, but some of my friends came out for volleyball and told me I should come out for the team, too. And I fell in love with it."
But as much as Darden has come to love volleyball, the sport will not determine where she goes to college next year.
It may still play a role in her college life, though if it does, it will only be a secondary role.
"I'm looking at a few schools like Richmond, South Carolina and Alabama," said Darden, who carries a 4.0 grade-point average and would like to major in business in college. "I'll wait and see. If I get into school and I see an opportunity to walk on (to the volleyball team), then I will. But I'll wait and see how it goes."
In the meantime, Darden is determined to finish her high school career on a high note -- namely helping the Wolves return to the postseason and making a deep run.
But she admits, it will be strange not representing Buford next year.
"It's going to be very sad," Darden said. "I've loved Buford and been in Buford my entire life."