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Multi-talented Hughes a big key for North

SUWANEE -- The term "utility player" doesn't always carry the most positive connotation.

In some sports, that term is sometimes associated with a player that his or her coach knows has athletic ability, but doesn't know exactly how to implement it.

But the term definitely has a different meaning for MaTia Hughes.

Throughout her volleyball career, the North Gwinnett senior has played just about every position on the court, and played them all well, including earning second-team All-County honors at libero last season.

This season, Hughes will be asked to play at least part-time at the one position she has never played in a match before -- setter -- and she is eagerly looking forward to it.

"I was a middle (hitter/blocker) in middle school, then I changed to outside," said Hughes, who had 367 digs and 107 service aces during the Bulldogs' 47-9 season that included an Area 7-AAAAA championship and a trip to the Class AAAAA state tournament last year. "I played that for a few years. Actually, I've only played libero for two years now.

"In the game of volleyball, you just have to learn to be versatile. You have to know how to play every position.

"I love all position. I've always wanted to set, but never really got to. So, this is kind of my chance. ... It will be the final thing I haven't done (before)."

Being able to handle constant changes is something Hughes is quite used to.

Having moved to Gwinnett County from Charleston, S.C., as a freshman and then to North Gwinnett from Mill Creek last season, she's constantly been on the move and had to adjust to new teammates.

"This is the third school I've been to," Hughes said. "This is actually the first year in my high school career I've been on the same team (two years in a row). It's kind of nice ... that I already know people and be comfortable in the situation. But I'm also used to getting to know new people. But it's fun to ... already have some of the chemistry going."

That building of chemistry, and Hughes' ability to do so well, will be particularly important for both her and the Bulldogs this season, especially with Hughes splitting time between libero and setter.

With North having to replace graduated senior Alex Panks -- a four-year starter and three-year All-County selection at setter -- developing a working rapport with the hitters will be critical for Hughes and the team's other setters.

But head coach Vanessa Henry has liked what she's seen of the developing partnership between the new setters, including Hughes, and big-time hitters like Kristina Stinson and Miller Howard.

"(Hughes) has really good court awareness, which is really big for a setter," Henry said. "It's kind of easy for her to fit in the setter position. She's just learning the hitters now, and she's picked up on that pretty quickly.

"I've told (all the setters) I'm not expecting them to be anyone's who's graduated -- just 100 percent of who they are. And (Hughes has) definitely stepped up to the challenge. She has become a complete player."

To become that complete player, Hughes has had to learn the unique duties of the setter position and stay focused to them when she moves over from libero.

And she says watching the experienced Panks perform those duties last year served as a fine teaching tool.

"I learned a lot from her game," Hughes said. "I played against her several times with my club team. I just hope I can be at least half as good as the setter position and do our team proud.

"The setter touches the ball every time. It's so important she knows where the blockers are on the other side. It's just so much different from being a libero, but I think it's going to be so much fun."