BEULAVILLE — In a volleyball season that was anything but normal or familiar, Maddie Simpson was a constant.
For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic moved the season’s first serve from the third week of August to the third week of November.
It was the first sport played in Duplin County since schools stopped playing games in March of 2020.
But Simpson was ready, just like she’s been the previous three seasons.
Teams were limited to 14 games, which meant a max of two nonconference matches.
But every school had its games — and routines — affected or altered by the virus stoppage — whether in their camp or under another school’s roof.
Nonetheless, Simpson stayed on point.
The East Duplin senior led the Panthers to a county-best 10-4 finish to claim her third consecutive Ms. Volleyball crown as Duplin’s Elite top player.
ED placed four players on the nine-player first team.
North Duplin and Wallace-Rose Hill nabbed two slots apiece and James Kenan one.
The Panthers had six selections on the first and second teams. ND had five, JK four and WRH three.
Simpson is one of four seniors on the first team, which features three juniors and two sophomores.
East Duplin, Senior
Simpson started smacking the ball down the throats of defenses as a freshman during a debut that earned her all-county first-team honors.
ND’s Anna Thornton beat her out for Ms. Volleyball, but not by much.
The next season, Simpson was East Central 2A Conference Player of the Year and Ms. Volleyball on Duplin’s Elite by a wide margin, logging 191 kills.
The nasty cross-court kills and in-their-face smashes — 175 — kept coming her junior season.
And while her statistics were not at the level they were the previous two seasons due to fewer games, Simpson was superb during a 105-kill senior campaign.
Adding 60 digs, 37 aces and 12 blocks into the equation, and the fact that this season ED’s roster featured several newcomers replacing graduating veterans, and a case could be made that Simpson had her best season.
Teammates Taylor Thigpen, Ava Hall and Emma Lanier, ND’s Callie Thornton and Starr Jaco, WRH’s Bailey Gatton and Mary Hadden Braswell and JK’s Hannah Barnette make up the rest of the first team.
JK freshman Reece Outlaw and ED sophomore Chandler Mobley are the youngest members of the second squad. Needless to say, both are rising stars.
ND and JK each had three second-team selections, ED two and WRH one.
ND, Senior, MH
Thornton, whose sister won the second Ms. Volleyball crown, is going to Coker University to play softball, but is a repeat performer on the first team.
While playing all over the court, Thornton transitioned from an outside to middle hitter this season.
She led the team in kills (54), assists (20), blocks (11) and was second in digs (3.3 per game) as ND went 4-4, which was the second-best mark in Duplin.
Bailey Gatton, WRH,
Gatton is another repeat selection for an improved Bulldog team that didn’t see that reflected in their 4-8 record.
She had 66 kills, 98 digs, 49 blocks and 19 aces.
Taylor Thigpen, ED
Thigpen likewise returns to first-team status after a season that saw her log 71 digs as a defensive specialist.
She had an 86 percent server rate and 14 kills.
Starr Jaco, ND
Jaco showed great ball-handling skills last season as a first-team player, and lifted her game a level as a setter this past winter.
The junior netted 46 assists, 29 digs and 14 aces in eight games. Those totals projected over the course of a normal season easily place her among the leaders.
Ava Hall, ED,
Hall, hands down one of the most improved players in the county, had 125 assists, 39 digs, 18 kills and 10 aces.
Mary Hadden Braswell,
WRH, Soph., MH/OH
Braswell’s solid all-around numbers earned her a spot in the top nine.
The sophomore had 60 kills, 80 digs, 18 blocks and 17 aces and punched her serve into play 97 percent of the time.
Emma Lanier, ED,
Lanier had 122 digs, 33 of which came in the Panthers’ first-round playoff loss to South Granville.
She had 26 in a win over Clinton and 23 in a 3-2 loss to Midway.
Hannah Barnette, JK
Barnette went wherever the ball went, often sacrificing her body to make a play.
— Dessa Houston, ED, senior, MB/MH. Had 24 blocks, 33 digs and 24 kills.
— Maggie Brown, JK, senior, MH. Led team in blocks.
— Alexis Wilson, WRH, senior, MH/OH. Had a team-high 68 kills.
— Rachel Blanchard, JK, junior, OH. Perhaps the most overall skilled junior in the county, she brought tons of athletic ability to the court.
_ Chandler Mobley, ED, sophomore, MB/MH. Had 21 kills, 25 blocks, 14 aces and 7 digs.
— Hannah Martin, ND, senior, MB. Led the team in serving and always showed a competitive face on game days.
— Emma Avent, JK, junior, setter. Hustle, heart and defense were keys to her game.
— Samantha Beavers, ND, senior, setter. Switched to setter this season and was the club’s co-leader in assists.
— Reece Outlaw, ND, freshman, OH/MB. Her versatility helped the Rebels cover more ground.