Sandhills Community College sophomore Paige Garner was innocently going about her business at the John Dempsey Student Center one day last week when she noticed her volleyball coach approaching with a sense of urgency.
"Coach Riggan (Alicia) came toward me while I was getting food in the cafeteria," she said. "'You're an All-American', she was saying to me. I had no idea what she was talking about. I was very surprised – even a little shocked. It's an honor and it's exciting."
Leading up to the first team NJCAA Division III All-American designation, Garner was the Region X Player of the Year on a Lady Flyers team that compiled a record of 27-6 while winning conference regular season and tournament titles. Playing for a trip to Rochester, Minn. for the national championships in late October, the Flyers lost in a tiebreaker set to Northampton CC in the District H championship match played in Bethlehem, Pa.
The 5-foot-11 middle hitter now holds the Flyer career records for kills (626) and solo blocks (139). Her hitting percentage of .377 was the ninth best in the nation and her 89 solo blocks were the ninth most. Flyer team records set this past season included most wins (27), most consecutive wins (13) and most sweeps (23).
Garner is the daughter of Rodney and Cassandra Garner and has a brother Cole who is 22 years old. Coached by her father in her last two seasons at North Moore High School, she was the conference player of the year as a senior.
She follows in the footsteps of two other former Mustang middle hitters, also coached by Rodney Garner, who earned All-American honors. Miranda Love Thomas became the volleyball program's first All-American in 2010 and was inducted into the Sandhills Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013. Melissa Powers Cox was named an NCAA Division II All-American in 2008 following a standout career at Catawba College.
"My dad had a big influence on me," Garner said. "A big role model for me was my cousin Melissa Cox. Dad coached Miranda too so I went to a lot of her games and know her really well."
If both Garner and her coach were surprised by the first team NJCAA Division III All-American selection, it was because the majority of the 12 spots on the honor squad annually go to members of the eight teams that qualify for the national championship tournament. Ten of the 12 this year were picked from tournament teams.
Riggan was a three-sport standout at North Moore before playing volleyball in college at UNC-Pembroke. This was her ninth season as the coach of the Flyers.
"It's super cool that they are all local girls, but also that they are from the same high school I went to," she said of the All-Americans. "I think Paige's work ethic is just unbelievable. She set the goal last December to be the conference player of the year, but being an All-American was never something we discussed.
"She was a great teammate on and off the court. She was someone you looked to as a leader. She wasn't very loud, but the girls really respected her. We wanted the ball in her hands in tight situations.
"Paige is such a great kid with a good heart. You want to see kids like Paige get awards and be successful and I felt the same way about Miranda. She never got on her teammates."
Garner is on track to continue her pursuit of a career as a physical therapist at UNC Chapel Hill next year under the highly selective C-Step (Student Transfer Excellence) program. She talked about some of the things about Sandhills she will remember the most.
"This was definitely a season to remember," she said. "I'm going to remember all the friends I've made, the records we set and the banners we will get to hang. I'll remember going to Pennsylvania and coming so close. We just had a really strong team this year. I hope that continues next year and that the sophomores have left a lasting impact on the freshmen and that they show the upcoming freshmen what it takes to have this kind of a team.
"I hope to keep volleyball in my life and become a coach or coach with someone someday because I'd like to give my knowledge to someone else and keep playing because I love this sport. They have a club team at UNC I might look into."
During halftime of one of last week's men's basketball games, Garner and Daniel Taylor of the men's cross country team were recognized for earning All-American honors.
"When I told Paige we were going to do this at halftime, she said, 'I'm still on cloud nine'," Riggan recalled. "I told her I don't think it will ever get old when someone tells you that you are an All-American."