Following the 2016 volleyball season, six Cartersville High players earned at least honorable-mention selection on the Daily Tribune News all-county team. Nedu Evans, a sophomore at the time, wasn’t one of them.
The following year, the junior, with ability to jump out of the gym, made the team, but Evans remained in the shadow of three-time player of the year Catie Heilman.
This past fall, the onus would be on Evans to carry the Canes after Heilman's graduation. Despite being asked to change positions, Evans delivered a season for the ages and lifted Cartersville to new heights, earning herself a chance to play collegiately at Augusta University.
“This senior year was so breathtaking,” Evans said after her signing ceremony. “… This year was so exciting. We were such a strong team. I’m going to miss a lot of my senior friends. At the end of the day, I think senior year grew me. I wouldn’t have changed this year in any way.”
The Canes reached the Final Four for the first time in program history, thanks in large part to Evans’ contributions on and off the court.
After finishing her junior campaign as a middle hitter with 276 kills, Evans moved to the outside as a senior and piled up 343 kills. She added 122 digs and 42 aces, while also displaying solid passing skills.
Cartersville head coach Dutch Cothran also credited Evans with becoming a go-to leader for the Canes during her final season.
“The big thing was just the fact she was able to step into the spotlight a little more as a senior,” Cothran said of Evans. “She was able to step up and lead, not just with her play but with her intangibles and the other things she did off the court. It was nice to see her hit those milestones as she grew.”
Cothran first met Evans through club volleyball before ever coaching at Cartersville. As soon as he joined the Canes staff in 2016, Cothran was re-introduced to Evans.
The player had improved quite a bit in the couple of years she had been playing, but even more growth would be on the horizon.
“I didn’t even touch the court that much back in eighth grade,” Evans said of when she first picked up the sport. “I was excited and ready to learn with the little ability that I had. Freshman year, I was just a little bit better than eighth-grade year. … The elite level started coming between freshman and sophomore year. The game was serious; the girls were serious.”
All of Evans’ progress came playing through the middle. Even as a sightly undersized frontline player, Evans made up for her 5-foot-9 build with her vertical.
But then Cothran asked her to play outside as a senior, hoping to give the team more balance in attack with standout Rebekah Stevens on the opposite flank.
Evans was immediately intrigued by the possibility of playing outside, knowing that she would have ample opportunities to produce thundering spikes. However, the positional change would also require her to take on more responsibilities in regards to passing and playing defense.
“We definitely worked on defense a lot, because that’s something the middle doesn’t really have to worry about,” Evans said. “It was a struggle at first, but I feel like, as the season progressed, I was getting more used to it and getting more comfortable. I was figuring things out on how to play defense, and it just clicked.”
While Augusta’s Sharon Quarles recruited Evans for her ability as a middle, the longtime Jags head coach appreciates the versatility Evans brings to the program.
"Nedu is a middle attacker who has a huge jump," Quarles said in a news release. "She is an agile middle that has a great way of working between the pins. In addition, a middle who also can take swings on the outside."
Following her fantastic final season, during which she was a landslide winner for Region 5-AAAA player of the year, Evans will have to learn how she’ll fit in with the Jags. Cothran believes the transition to the next level should be a seamless move for Evans.
“Going from being a big fish in a small pool to being a small fish in a big pool is always a challenge for people,” he said. “I think she’s well equipped for that. She’s an intelligent kid. She’ll make friends quickly, because she’s outgoing and bubbly. I think she’ll step right in and be a great teammate.
“She was always a great teammate here, whether she was kind of in the shadows as a younger kid or whether she was the star of the show this past season. She was always a good teammate, reaching out to kids to help them, no matter what. I think she’ll adjust and be great.”
Considering how far Evans has come in her four years with the Canes, competing on JV as a freshman and ascending the pecking order the next three years on the varsity team, she gives plenty of credit to the program for helping shape her.
“The Cartersville volleyball program has changed me all around in how I play,” Evans said. “It really changed my style of playing, my confidence on the court, conditioning and everything. … I just know that I can grow from this base that high school gave me. I know I have a solid foundation of where my volleyball comes from.”
After watching an extremely athletic but raw talent develop into a Division-II level player, Cothran knows it will be tough to replace Evans’ production. There is plenty of talent still in the program, but unlike when Heilman graduated, there’s seemingly no Evans-like star waiting in the wings to take over.
“It will be different looking out there and not seeing Nedu,” Cothran said. “As long as I’ve been here in purple, she’s been here in purple, as well. It will be interesting and kind of scary at times, I guess. That’s the nature of our sport. People are going to move on — hopefully, onto bigger and better things.”