Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett volleyball players Miller Howard, left, Alex Panks, center and Kristina Stinson, right.
SUWANEE --An injury to an individual player isn't supposed to be a season-killer, though when that player is so key to that team's fortunes like Kelsea Knudsen has been for North Gwinnett's volleyball team, it can still have a serious impact on a season's expectations.
That's what could have happened when Knudsen, a powerful returning All-State and All-County outside hitter from last season's Class AAAAA state quarterfinal team, went down with a knee injury.
However, her teammates have been determined not to let that happen.
And as the 2011 Gwinnett County Championships get under way this afternoon at five different sites around the county, the Bulldogs (35-6 and No. 4 in the latest Class AAAAA state rankings) remain one of the favorites to take home the tournament title, and perhaps go onto even bigger and better accomplishments.
That's because the whole team has bonded together to make up for the loss of Knudsen's production.
"Sure we had some doubts we could go on without Kelsea," North coach Vanessa Henry said. "She had 367 kills last year. That's a lot to make up for. But after the first week of the season, (the players) started believing they had a shot to do as well. We've played harder and played smarter."
While the each member of the roster has answered the call to take her game up a notch, there are three whose contributions have been particularly important to keeping the Bulldogs among Gwinnett's top teams.
Junior outside hitter Kristina Stinson was already expected to play a bigger offensive role this season after showing signs of breaking out late last season and during the summer, while fellow junior Miller Howard has provided a more unexpected spark in the middle.
Directing traffic for it all has been the seasoned veteran in senior setter Alex Panks, a three-year starter and two-time Daily Post All-County and Super Six selection.
Together, the trio has formed a nucleus that has helped bring the team together and overcome the loss of their offensive leader.
"Ever since me and Kelsea were sophomores, we've been planning on being, like, leaders on the team," says Panks, who remains among Gwinnett's top setters this season with 609 assists. "Ever since she went out, she hasn't been able come back and be with us, though Kristina and Miller have really helped step up with me. Coach Henry really trusts us."
That trust was easier for Stinson to come by after showing flashes of promise a year ago with 271 kills, 117 service aces and 49 blocks as a sophomore.
Still, the junior had an adjustment to make, not so much for the added responsibility as much as not having Knudsen's familiar presence alongside her.
"She is really important to everyone, especially to me because she's been my (hitting) partner for the last three years," said Stinson, who has pounded down 268 kills and added 91 aces and 104 digs this season. "I didn't want to see her go down like that. I understood I had to take a (bigger) role and I needed to step up as an upperclassman and get the job done."
As important as Stinson has been to the Bulldogs, she's needed help in providing offense.
And she's gotten that help from several other hitters, like seniors Anna Mullins, Taylor Royster and Meagan O'Neal and junior MaTia Hughes. It is the assistance Howard has provided that has been perhaps the most important because it's been the must unexpected.
"Miller realized how important to the team she was," Henry said. "Ever since, she's stepped forward and played with confidence. There are a lot of situations in which she's carried us. She's definitely one of our go-to players."
Howard admits that confidence hasn't been there all season, though it has steadily grown throughout the past few months.
"It was very difficult at first, but (the rest of the team was) all so encouraging for me," said Howard, who has 264 kills with 163 digs on the season. "It's really been helping me realize that I can do this.
"I feel like I've been more aggressive with everything, and like going after everything, and just doing everything better than I did them last year."
It also has helped the confidence of younger players like Howard to have an experienced on-court hand to guide them.
Panks has been that guiding hand by tailoring her sets to the diverse hitting styles of her teammates.
"For Miller, she likes the ball higher, so I had to adjust because I'm used to a quicker pace," Panks said. "For Kristina, since she was a middle, I would set it faster and tighter to the net because as a middle, she was so used to going quick ones and slides and 31s and stuff. So, setting her quicker really helps her hit the ball better.
"I really like to set to my right side Anna (Mullins). She can hit the line shot like no other. Also, my middles -- Taylor (Royster) can run a really good 31 and Meagan (O'Neal) is really good at slides and ones."
Panks has also become a more multi-dimensional threat this season, with 73 aces, 137 digs and even helping the offensive depth with 121 kills.
Those added elements are also symbolic of the different abilities that have melded together to make for a closer team this season, something Stinson says will need to continue if the Bulldogs are to continue to challenge for the goals they've set with the county, Area 7-AAAAA and Class AAAAA state tournaments still ahead.
"I definitely think we're going to make it a lot further (in the state tournament) this year," Stinson said. "We're doing really good and playing well together."