As it steamrolled into the state tournament, the North Andover girls’ volleyball team did not let the controversy surrounding former captain Erin Cox slow its momentum.
Cox, a four-year varsity player, was suspended for five games and stripped of her captaincy by school officials last month after she was identified as being at a house party in Boxford where alcohol was present. Cox said she went to the party to drive a drunken classmate home. The suspension prompted a debate over the zero-tolerance policy enforced by North Andover school officials, with Cox at the center of a national debate over trying to do the right thing.
Cox, a senior honor student and the team’s top setter, returned to the court after serving her suspension and continued as one of North Andover’s top players. Coach Veronica Schaefer declined to discuss the incident, and said her players were unavailable to talk about it.
Cox’s attorney, Wendy Murphy, who said previously she was considering filing a federal lawsuit against the school district over Cox’s punishment, said in an e-mail Thursday “there is no litigation yet — nothing pending and nothing planned until after she graduates.”
It is unclear if the suspension will hurt Cox’s chances of earning a sports scholarship.
Despite the distractions, Cox and the rest of the Scarlet Knights kept their eyes on the ball.
They went into the North Division 1 Sectionals as the No. 2 seed with a 19-1 record and swept Medford and Masconomet, 3-0, in their first two tourney games before losing to archival Andover, 3-1, in Thursday’s semifinals.
Schaefer rebuilt a team that lost eight seniors to graduation last year into another powerhouse. North Andover shared the Merrimack Valley Conference title with Andover, the only team to beat the Scarlet Knights during the regular season. For that game on Oct. 11, Cox was out of the lineup, serving her suspension.
“We brought on seven new juniors this year that had played as sophomores on the JV team,” Schaefer said. “Their enthusiasm, their love for the game, their intensity, their desire to get in at any possible moment they can get in, I think has led us to where we are.”
But it is the senior core that led the way. Cox has been on varsity for four years, captains Merry Eagan and Caroline Schmidt since they were sophomores, and captain Katie Lessard for two years.
“They kind of have walked through the system for many years,” Schaefer said. “So for them to be on the top teaching the younger kids what it means to be here, I think, is a huge asset that we have.
“And, of course, with Erin running the court like she has for four years, the kids are very lucky to have someone who can put the ball where it’s supposed to be. That’s been a huge help for the team.”
“It’s been interesting,” said Lessard, “because I’m only one of four seniors, so I’ve kind of gotten to know the girls on my team throughout the last two or three years — especially since most of them are younger than me. It’s been awesome just building relationships with all of them; we’ve just grown really close and it’s really helped the chemistry on the court.”
Schmidt, one of the other three captains, said: “It’s been a really fun season. I have really good teammates, and a really fun time, and a great coach.”
Schaefer has been the only coach in the program’s 13 seasons, taking a team that went 0-20 to a cochampionship this year in the Merrimack Valley after moving from the Cape Ann League.
For Schaefer, who went to Billerica High School before playing volleyball at Plymouth State, the move to the Merrimack Valley was like “coming home.”
“We never took anything home from the Cape Ann League,” Schaefer said. “This is our first banner year, which is very exciting for me.”