Justine Ackie found herself in a difficult position last year with the Mountain Pointe volleyball program.
Most coaches have time to adjust to their players throughout the summer, meeting those who plan to return from the year prior. But Ackie was hired just before tryouts.
She made the most of the opportunity she was given, but the Pride struggled as they dealt with injuries to key players at various times throughout the season. This year, however, Ackie is ready to turn the page on a program that has struggled the last four seasons.
Ackie has started to establish a new culture and attitude for the program, one her players took a liking to right away. She also wanted to express the importance of their mental health. She wants her players to not only be prepared physically for a taxing season but mentally, too.
“We’re really big this year on culture and attitude,” Ackie said. “Having those positive attitudes and working on the mental health of a sport aspect and making sure these girls, not only skill wise they’re flourishing, but mental health wise they’re also flourishing.
“I’m preaching culture to them. You’re only as good as your character is, that’s one of our main focuses right now.”
A culture change is something Ackie believes will help a Mountain Pointe that has won eight games in the last two seasons. COVID took a toll on the program, as some key players sat out due to the uncertainty of the fall sports season.
Last year, injuries and an overall young team kept the Pride from winning matches. But this season, several sophomores and juniors that saw considerable playing time at the varsity level a year ago have now returned.
They all bring familiarity to the program, along with a veteran presence. There’s also the leadership factor, a trait Ackie has seen develop in a few players in particular.
Makayla Carroll has been one of those leaders for the team. Last year, she was forced to lead from the bench due to a torn ACL. Now healthy, her teammates match her energy on a daily basis. She admits to being the boisterous one of the group. It’s natural for her.
While some of that comes from her pure love for volleyball and her personality, most of it this season is due to the joy that comes with being able to play again after fully recovering from injury.
“It means everything,” Carroll said. “That was my main goal, just getting back to playing. I’m really excited. Volleyball is my passion.”
Carroll sought advice from Mountain Pointe 2022 grad MiMi Harris, who went on to play volleyball at Alabama State. The two are best friends and have been for years.
When Carroll was doubtful about her return at times, Harris was in her ear as motivation. Carroll took it to heart and is now preparing to be the libero for a team she feels can have a special season after a productive summer.
“She told me I could do it and to believe in myself. It’s all about the mindset,”
Carroll said. “I’m excited this year. I feel like we have a good team. We’ve grown a lot and we’ve been working really hard this summer.”
Along with Carroll, Alivia Procter took it upon herself to hold her teammates accountable throughout the summer. Ackie said Procter was the one who organized workouts and set times for everyone in the program to show up.
As a sophomore last season, she had 29 kills, 20 aces and 74 digs for the Pride. But Ackie expects her to play a much bigger role this season as an outside hitter and defensive specialist.
It’s an opportunity Procter is excited for. She’s seen the program at its lowest and is now eager for the opportunity to build it back up to a championship contender. That, however, will come in a new conference as the Pride were moved down to 5A from 6A in the latest realignment by the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
Procter doesn’t see the move as demotion. It allows her and her teammates to see new opponents and perhaps, be more competitive.
“I honestly think we can do really well,” Procter said. “We get to meet new teams, see how they play. It’s a new look and it gives us a new mindset we can build on.”
One of Procter’s main goals this season is to do what she can to help turn the volleyball program around and in the right direction.
She knows the history of Mountain Pointe athletics. And she’s seen the rise of other programs around the school. She feels the volleyball program has to redeem themselves this year, and the leadership from players like herself will be key to do that.
“Mountain Pointe athletics has always been good, such high praise and stuff,” Procter said. “We lost our seniors last year, but we didn’t take it as a defeat because we gained a lot. I think we can make the most of it this year and a lot
Mountain Pointe plans to bring a new level of energy into every match this season. A preview of that was seen during the Pride’s scrimmage against Mesquite. The bench was asked on one occasion to sit down while they were cheering.
That is a characteristic of her team that Ackie loves. It also shows just how ready they were for the season to begin Tuesday against Cienega.
“We’re ready to play. They’re itching to play,” Ackie said. “Pre-season is always hard because it’s just practice. It’s hard to describe in words how excited we are for this team.”