Three years ago, when Joy Stewart returned to North Forsyth for the first time since she graduated from the high school in 2003, an all too familiar feeling emerged.
She noticed several new buildings on campus. She only recognized three staff members from her time as a student. This was Stewart’s second home for four years – where she played three sports and participated in ROTC – and she didn’t recognize this place.
But it’s exactly where Stewart has always wanted to be – in Coal Mountain coaching Lady Raiders volleyball.
"I felt like a freshman walking around like, ‘Hey, can you show me where this class is?’ Stewart said. "It was embarrassing. It was a really bad.
"But I love this school. I loved this school when I was in high school, and I still love it."
When former North volleyball coach Kathy Houston resigned after this past season, Stewart was ready to take over. It’d been her hope all along. From the time she was a junior in high school, Stewart knew she wanted to teach and coach volleyball at North.
So Stewart hatched her plan. She played two years of volleyball at Carsen-Newman College then transferred to the University of North Georgia to finish her teaching degree. She wouldn’t teach at North right out of college, nor would she coach volleyball right away. Instead, she focused on being just a math teacher at Rome High School for three years.
"I was nervous about coming [to North] and not being seen as a peer," Stewart said. "You know, still being seen as a student. So I was glad that I went and worked somewhere else."
Then the plan accelerated. Stewart joined the volleyball program at Rome for two years as the junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant coach. The next year, she joined Houston’s staff at North.
Here she was, back at the place she called "my home." Where she played volleyball for four years. Where she was a hurdler and pole-vaulter on the track team. Where she participated in the ROTC program under Sgt. Jack "Gunny" Snook, the first person Stewart sought out when she arrived back in Coal Mountain.
None of which was unusual in the Stewart family. Her older brothers had both been four-sport athletes at North.
"We’re competitive," Stewart said, "and we want to succeed in anything that we do."
That, Stewart said, came from her parents. They weren’t athletes, but they instilled in Stewart and her brothers perseverance.
"We were never allowed to quit anything, ever," Stewart said, "even if we got in a situation where we weren’t happy. They were like, ‘You chose this. You’re going to do your best at it, stick with it.’ They were just great. It was the same thing with everything. We always had to have good grades. We were just always expected to succeed, and we did."
Indeed, Stewart was an all-area selection in volleyball all four years. She qualified for the state track meet all three years she participated. She led Rome’s junior varsity volleyball team to its best record in program history.
Now, she takes on a unique challenge – rebuilding North volleyball.
Stewart started with switching the team’s offensive and defensive systems to ones that provide the team with more structure. She’s already noticed fewer dropped balls. She requires the team to be loud during drills throughout practice to improve communication.
More crucially, Stewart instituted a new policy she borrowed from the small group she leads at Browns Bridge Community Church she calls, ‘More than four.’ Whenever more than four players get together outside of practice, they have to invite the rest of the team.
It’s aimed at curing the biggest ailment Stewart found when she came back to North. There was the losing, yes, but she quickly noticed the losses were a symptom of a deeper problem. Every season, half the varsity team wouldn’t return.
"People don’t want to play [volleyball] for North," Stewart said. "They just didn’t leave loving the sport, so there wasn’t that commitment. And you just can’t build a program if you don’t have returning players."
Stewart is interested in more wins, to be sure. The Lady Raiders got off to a good start in that endeavor when they defeated North Hall and lost a close three-set match to West Forsyth on Tuesday in their season-opener.
But to start, Stewart is more interested in repairing the morale inside the program. Records and stats won’t be the focus this season, she said. Rather, she just wants the Lady Raiders to reach the end of the season and be anxious to get the next one started.
Chances are that’s how Stewart will feel – for a long time.
"I want to succeed so bad because I’m not going anywhere else," Stewart said. "This is my home."
Brian Paglia is sports editor at the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at email@example.com, 770-205-8976 or follow him on Twitter at @BrianPaglia.