Polk County sophomore Charley Dusenbury has been part of three playoff teams this season

As Polk County’s soccer team became the latest Wolverine girls squad to tick off win after win, two members of the PCHS athletic department were discussing that accomplishment.

“You know,” one said, “it’s time for the boys teams to start winning.”

Success has been a constant throughout the 2023-24 school year for female teams and athletes at Polk County High School and Polk County Middle School, with the Wolverines’ run to Tuesday’s 1A West Regional final the latest in a lengthy list of achievements.

Polk County’s state volleyball championship last fall may be the crown jewel, but there have been plenty of other highlights since August:

  • All five PCHS teams that can participate in playoffs (tennis, volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball) won at least one playoff game
  • Three of those teams – tennis, volleyball, soccer – were among the final eight teams left in the playoffs.
  • Those teams posted a combined record of 79-33-3 entering Tuesday’s soccer match
  • Junior Karsyn Huskey finished 13th in the state cross country meet while becoming the seventh runner in school history to break the 20-minute mark. Huskey also finished fifth in the 1000-meter run at the state indoor track and field championships and third in the 800-meter run at the state outdoor meet.
  • Leah Dotson posted an eighth in the pole vault at the state indoor track and field meet while Akeela Cunningham was 10th in the shot put at the state outdoor meet.
  • Addie Buss started multiple matches for Polk County’s boys golf team.
  • Grace Suttles finished 4-2 for Polk County’s wrestling team.

“Being part of three winning teams this year has been one of the greatest experiences of my life thus far, and I could not be more grateful,” said sophomore Charley Dusenbury, one of two Wolverines to play for Polk’s volleyball, basketball and soccer teams (Kylie Lewis is the other). “Winning the state championship in volleyball was such an amazing accomplishment that I will never forget, and to have the opportunity to possibly do the same thing in soccer is so exciting.

“I think this group of female athletes is obviously very special. To be able to say I was part of the team that took home the first state championship in girls volleyball at PCHS is something I will forever be proud of. The idea of making history while also providing a positive example for young girls is something that my teams and I strive for.”

The younger athletes seem to be taking notice. Consider the accomplishments of Polk Middle’s female athletes:

  • The PCMS volleyball and basketball teams won Blue Ridge Conference East Division titles and reached the BRC postseason tournament final
  • Polk Middle’s soccer squad set school records for wins and shutouts and reached the tournament semifinals
  • The Wolverine softball squad qualified for the conference tournament
  • Seventh grader Amberina Jenne placed second at the BRC cross country meet
  • Eighth grader Reeve Carroll won the high jump at the BRC track and field championships and also set a school soccer record with 30 goals

Even Polk Middle’s competition academic teams had a healthy dose of girl power – three of the four medalists at the North Carolina Science Olympiad were females while Emma Blomeley served as lead builder for Polk Middle’s state championship model bridge building team, half of which were girls.

Polk County Middle’s Reeve Carroll played a key role in the success of three Wolverine teams while also winning the high jump at the conference track and field meet

“I believe that the success of high school programs do have an impact at the middle school,” said PCMS cross country and girls soccer coach Jessica Marrow. “Athletes look up to the high school athletes and want to strive for excellence like the high school programs do. The high school programs set up a lot of inspiration and motivation for the middle school levels.

“Middle school athletes showing up to watch high school games increase exposure to middle school students. There is a lot of great achievement and development across middle and high school levels.”

Obviously, athletic success is often tied to athletic talent, and both schools have a bevy of outstanding competitors. But PCHS basketball coach Brandy Alm, whose daughter, Kenzie, plays three sports at PCMS, thinks there are more factors driving the year of highlights.

“The current group of female athletes at PCHS has been successful due to a combination of factors,” Alm said. “First and foremost, their strong work ethic and dedication to their sports have been crucial. Our basketball players consistently put in the effort during practice and maintain a high level of commitment. They play for each other, support one another, and emphasize teamwork, which has significantly impacted their success. Building a cohesive team spirit has also played a vital role in their achievements.”

Marrow also thinks the work ethic of the current group of athletes at both schools is a key factor in the recent success. That dedication, though, isn’t limited to the players.

“I believe that the reason the athletes at PCMS has become so successful is the willingness of coaches to continue to push and drive female athletes to put forth effort and work in the season and in the offseason,” she said. “Female athletes must have the determination and willingness to show up to practices during the season. There is also a rise of travel teams in the area, which allow further growth within the athletes.

“There‚Äôs a lot of behind the scenes that coaches do within their teams. Being a coach of two different sports, one female-only and the other cross country that involves females, you have to constantly push hard work ethic and positive reinforcement. Coaches must have a strong work ethic and want every female athlete to grow and strive to succeed. Coaches also must be able to advocate for their athletes, which helps the athletes strive to reach team and individual goals.”

Polk County’s Sophia Overholt was named the Most Valuable Player in the Wolverines’ win in the state 1A championship

Interest in women’s sports nationally may never have been higher. Fueling that surge of late has been basketball standout Caitlin Clark, who helped drive record-setting television audiences for the recent NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament before turning professional and joining the WNBA. College volleyball enjoyed record attendance and ratings last fall, and this summer’s Olympic Games will also likely heighten fan frenzy around soccer and other sports.

Alm expects all of that passion to filter down to the scholastic ranks.

“The growing interest in women’s athletics at the national level is definitely being reflected at the high school and middle school levels,” she said. “Increased media coverage and the success of female athletes at higher levels have inspired younger athletes and generated more enthusiasm for women’s sports.

“It’s telling when male and female basketball players step beyond the 3-point line and say ‘Caitlin Clark’ instead of ‘Kobe’ or ‘Curry/’ That says a lot about the impact and growing prominence of women’s basketball.”

Marrow agrees that national coverage can fuel local participation. But she thinks that is only part of the equation – and that there are more potential standouts in the community to reach.

“The motivation comes from parents and families, coaches and peers as well,” she said. “We must motivate students to be involved in athletics, as you do still see students walk within schools that would be great athletes, but they would prefer to go home and be involved in social media, phones and so on.

“Coaches, faculty and staff must continue to support athletics and school teams to help develop a growing interest at the middle and high school levels.”

Polk County’s success across its female teams may continue for some time. The rosters of most PCHS squads had only a handful of seniors, and those teams will be bolstered by strong classes coming from from PCMS. Travel programs such as Polk County Volleyball Club and NC Foothills Fury Softball should continue to increase the skill levels of players coming into PCMS programs.

Dusenbury will have two more seasons to contribute to that future, but that can wait. For now, she’s just hoping for a couple more soccer victories to cap a remarkable season in PCHS athletics.

“We know we have the potential to do big things, and that confidence comes from the endless support from our coaches and community,” she said. “I keep coming back to the possibility of winning two state championships in the same year, but I know I need to focus on winning one game at a time.”