Because of GHSA reclassification, there’s plenty of turnover for area alignment this season when it comes to local prep volleyball.
Some teams are in areas with the same name, but different teams. Some teams are in areas with different names, but essentially the same teams. Some teams are in different classifications altogether.
Because this is high school athletics, there’s also at least a bit of turnover everywhere when it comes to the roster. Players graduate, so programs must adjust and have new names come to the forefront if they want to continue their success or get better.
But for the first time in several years, local volleyball programs have plenty of stability at the top.
Every head coach who led one of the seven local high school teams in 2011 is back for this season, and that should be a positive force as most programs hope for better results this time around.
While Christian Heritage, Dalton and Southeast Whitfield all made their respective state tournaments a year ago, last season was largely a struggle for other area programs. But a new season means a new chance to meet goals, win matches and move on.
Here’s a look at the expectations for each area team as the season begins this week:
The Lady Lions won 16 matches last year and made their deepest run in the GISA postseason, reaching the state semifinals before losing to eventual champion Trinity Christian-Sharpsburg.
Because of that success, their new season begins with anticipation and promise. Because of a move from the GISA to the GHSA this year — plus the loss of several key players — their new season also begins with challenges likely.
Carmen Tejada and Karla Ireta graduated, and Emma Ireta — Karla’s younger sister and the team’s biggest presence at the net last season as a middle hitter — won’t be back after her family moved to Texas.
However, coach Kim Parsons, who’s entering her third year leading the Lady Lions, likes her team’s chances despite any challenges.
“If they can play with maturity, stay focused on plays and not on the points, we’ll be fine,” she said.
While they may not be seniors, a trio of players are among those who will be counted on for statistical contributions and leadership after proving capable starters last season.
Junior setter Jessica Seehorn, an all-region and all-state selection in 2011, became the first Lady Lion chosen for The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Volleyball Team. She led area schools with 85 aces, and her leadership was strong enough a year ago to be chosen as a co-captain for Christian Heritage.
Alongside Seehorn is fellow junior Savannah Roberson, an outside hitter who earned all-area honorable mention, and sophomore front-liner Brenna Mugge. Parsons said she will expect more leadership from Mugge as the season progresses.
She also expects more tests for her team with the school’s change in associations. They’ll compete in Class A’s Area 4, which also includes Darlington, Georgia School for the Deaf, Gordon Lee, Mt. Paran Christian, North Cobb Christian, Walker and Whitefield Academy.
“I think our biggest challenge from the move (to GHSA) will be not knowing our competition,” Parsons said. “I know Gordon Lee and Darlington will be really good teams. Everything will be new for us. It will be really good for the school, though. (Getting used to) playing in tri-matches will also be an adjustment, but I think we’ll compete and hold our own.”
The Lady Lions open their season Thursday with a tri-match against Southeast and host Coahulla Creek.
If last year’s inaugural season for the Lady Colts was all about growing pains — the team finished with an 8-31 record — this year should be about coming of age.
With all of the starting roster returning for coach Julie Norton and with the team moving to Area 6-3A, making the state playoffs isn’t just a dream this year. It is a legitimate goal and expectation.
“I would probably say this regardless of whether we were a second-year program or not, but a year of maturity with girls of this age is huge,” Norton said. “They know a lot more about the game, know their rotation, know where they are supposed to be. The girls are really gaining a lot more confidence on the court, and this year will be more about polishing than learning.”
The Lady Colts enjoyed a busy summer, competing at a camp at the University of Alabama and finishing third in their division. For a team that was looking up at the rest of the competition last year, the Lady Colts have seven sophomores who form the core of the team.
It’s not unreasonable to think they could be a program on the rise.
“A lot of the girls that were fresh and new last year have developed that love for volleyball and will bring a lot more energy to the court this year,” Norton said. “It is just a different kind of energy that I am seeing from them. I am cautiously optimistic.”
The Lady Colts will be in an area with Sonoraville, Cartersville, Ringgold, Adairsville, Fannin County, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and North Murray. Sophomores Becca Bailey (setter), Erin Orem (outside hitter) and Gabrielle Henderson (libero) will anchor the rotation for the Lady Colts.
Despite their youth, Norton believes making the state playoffs — they’ll need to finish in the upper half of their area — is a legitimate goal for her team.
“We have eight teams in our area, and we have the potential to (make state),” said Norton, a former assistant at Northwest Whitfield and head coach at Christian Heritage. “It will be a challenge, and a lot of it will depend on the desire from the girls. They have the knowledge and the skills, and now it is just a matter of doing some things a little quicker.”
Coahulla Creek opens the season Tuesday at Northwest against the Lady Bruins and Dalton in a tri-match.
In recent history, it’s been Dalton and Southeast at or near the top of the local landscape on the volleyball court.
Lady Catamounts coach Joey Wills does not see things changing this year.
While Southeast topped Dalton in four of five matchups last season — including for the Area 7-3A tournament title — the Lady Cats went just as far as the Lady Raiders in the state tournament. Dalton lost on the road in the second round to Atlanta’s St. Pius X, the eventual runner-up.
While some coaches hesitate to make any preseason predictions beyond insisting everyone is even, Wills believes his Lady Cats and the Lady Raiders are among the preseason favorites to contend for the Area 7-4A title. While the GHSA’s new six-class system has Dalton in a league with a different name, the opponents are plenty familiar. In addition to Southeast, 7-4A includes Gilmer, Heritage-Catoosa, LaFayette, Northwest, Pickens and Ridgeland.
“I think it’s the same way that it has been the last three or four years,” Wills said. “It’s neck and neck between us, Southeast and Heritage. Heritage I’m not so sure about this year because they have a new coach. ... Southeast is always been a great opponent.
“Jennifer Quinn at Northwest is doing an outstanding job. Northwest was down last year because of the girls leaving and going to Coahulla Creek, but Jennifer will have them in shape and ready to go.”
Dalton finished 30-15 a year ago, and the Lady Cats have made the state tournament six of the past seven seasons, advancing to the second round each of the past two.
The future should be only brighter, Wills said.
“Right now we’re in a pretty good area for Northwest Georgia,” Wills said. “A lot of the other areas are not as progressive for volleyball. Another few seasons and we’ll be competing with teams in Atlanta, which is what we’re headed toward.”
Returning for the Lady Cats are senior outside hitter Susain Meinders — a pick for The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Volleyball Team a year ago — senior setter Kara Pendley, sophomore middle hitter Ashleigh Peters and sophomore libero Macie Noles. Dalton must make up for the loss of another all-area pick from 2011, outside hitter Natali Rendon, who was a senior.
“Those are my four girls to watch right now, and they’re all going to progress and come together as a team,” Wills said.
Dalton opens its season Tuesday at Northwest in a tri-match that also includes Coahulla Creek.
A veteran coach of high school sports, Kim Richards believes in positive thinking, but she’s being tested after her Lady Indians went 1-19 in 2011. Aside from the one victory over Pepperell in the early-season Rockmart tournament, the Lady Indians were swept 2-0 in each of their 19 losses.
However, Richards sees that win over Pepperell as cause for cautious optimism this year. Murray County has dropped down in classification and is one of the two most experienced teams — the other is Calhoun — in Area 5-2A, which also includes Armuchee, Chattooga, Coosa, Model and Pepperell.
“My way of motivating the girls is telling them that we’re one of two that has played volleyball more than one year,” Richards said. “That’s not saying the other teams aren’t good, but we have more experience and that’s good for us.”
Few Georgia high schools outside of metro areas have feeder programs for volleyball, but plenty do for softball, so convincing girls to pick up the sport as freshmen isn’t an easy task for coaches. But Richards and returning players worked diligently to improve participation in Murray County’s volleyball program during the offseason.
Since North Murray opened in 2009, the reduction in Murray County’s enrollment means the battle for fall participation has been even more difficult.
“Girls around here have been picking up softball bats and balls forever,” Richards said. “We also compete with cross country and the band for girls. Some of the tallest girls in school are in the band. It’s tough for any school our size to supply good athletes to more than one sport.”
This year, there were 28 players at preseason tryouts.
“That was pretty awesome,” Richards said. “When I coached in Alabama, we had volleyball in the fall and softball in the spring, but that’s not going to change in Georgia.”
Richards will bank heavily on the talents of seniors Paiton Bradford and Kelsey Love, both middle hitters, and Kelsie Chastain, a setter, to hold the team together in 2012 after it was splintered a year ago by poor player chemistry.
“In the past that has torn us apart,” Richards said. “These girls know it and they don’t want it to happen this year. I am counting those seniors to pull us through.”
In the end, junior outside hitter Keona Brinkman could end up being the team’s dominant leader, Richards said. Sophomores Alex Johnson and Heidy Cabral also have stepped up and proven themselves to be capable contributors in various roles for the Lady Indians, who open the season Thursday by hosting a tri-match against Model and Ridgeland.
The Lady Mountaineers will throw a lot of familiar faces at some new opponents in Area 4-3A this season.
After going 14-11 overall and 9-4 in Area 6-2A/A in 2011, North Murray will compete against Adairsville, Cartersville, Coahulla Creek, Fannin County, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, Ringgold and Sonoraville for one of four spots the area can earn in a 32-team state playoff bracket.
“I want to do better this year than last year,” second-year Lady Mountaineers coach Connie Hudgins said. “I’ve got seven seniors and they’ve been playing since the eighth or ninth grade. Having that much experience, I expect a pretty good year. The players are expecting to have a better season than me.”
When it comes to team strengths, Hudgins, put the leadership of the team’s seniors — Machaela Bickford, Alex Westmoreland, Casey Chapman, Hannah Jones, Kaitlyn Jones, Hannah Abdelrazzaq and Iliana Munguia — at the top of the list.
A year ago, Hudgins saw what could happen with just two seniors paving the way toward a successful outcome.
“Our seniors this year provide good leadership, they have a lot of experience and they’re talented players,” she said.
Grace Phillips, Harmony Jones, Hayley Hart and Maggie Dunn will also play essential roles for the Lady Mountaineers this year as they take on what Hudgins believes is a challenging group of foes.
“There are some teams that will be tough,” she said. “We’ve played some of them in travel ball and the girls know each other pretty well. I’m looking forward to it.”
In 2011, Sonoraville won 31 of 40 matches, according to ga.prepcountry.com, including a 13-0 league mark. Gordon Lee, Darlington and LFO also posted double-digit area wins.
North Murray closed September 2011 with 2-0 wins over Coosa, Rockmart, Coahulla Creek, Temple and Adairsville only to lose its final three matches to Heritage-Catoosa (2-1), LFO (2-1) and Darlington (2-1).
“Last year was kind of rough on us,” Hudgins said. “This (classification) suits us a lot better.”
The Lady Mountaineers begin play Tuesday at LaFayette in a tri-match that includes Heritage.
One of the season’s highlights will be North Murray hosting at tournament for the first time. The North Murray Spikefest is set for Friday and Saturday in Chatsworth, and the 10 varsity teams that will compete include local schools Coahulla Creek, Dalton and Northwest.
The Lady Bruins went 12-32 last season, but they were a relatively inexperienced team competing in Area 7-4A.
While three of that area’s four teams that qualified for the state tournament lost in the opening round, the one that survived went a long way — all the way, in fact, as Pope’s Lady Greyhounds won a championship for the third consecutive year.
GHSA reclassification this year brought with it six classes and a whole different look for Area 7-4A, though, and it doesn’t include Atlanta-area teams. Still, the experience gained last year playing powers like Pope should help the Lady Bruins as they get ready for the new season in a league that will include much more familiar opponents.
In addition, Northwest coach Jennifer Quinn has a season’s experience after being a rookie head coach last year, and the former assistant to longtime Lady Bruins coach Richard Taylor is seeing the benefits of what she learned in 2011.
“I am real excited, and the girls are excited too,” Quinn said. “We have six seniors this year, and they are really stepping up.”
Isabella Ford, Mackenzie Mastin, Sarah Thomas, Katie Kirk, Liz Trew and Shelby Douglas return for their finals seasons. Quinn said the leap in talent and ability to this year from last year is evident.
“Last year, I went in trying to see what the girls already knew, but I found out that basically some of them didn’t have that game instinct. This year, we are trying to sharpen that up and develop an offense they have control over and getting better at the game,” said Quinn, a member of the Northwest Whitfield Athletic Hall of Fame who was The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year in 1998 before going to play in college at West Georgia.
Like most of Northwest’s coaches, Quinn has no complaints about competing in an area that will definitely reduce travel and could put more fans in the seats because of opponent familiarity.
“I am truly excited about our schedule,” Quinn said. “When I first came last year, the schedule was handed to me. This year with us back in the community, we were excited to play teams around here.”
The Lady Bruins open the season Tuesday by hosting a tri-match against Dalton and Coahulla Creek.
Southeast coach Jake Dickey’s preseason outlook sure has changed from last year.
He admits he thought 2011 would be a rebuilding year for his Lady Raiders. Instead, the squad finished 36-7 and won the Area 7-3A title. It was the first time the program had won an area title, and it led to another first — a state tournament match at home.
Dickey’s mindset is different heading into 2012, his seventh as the program’s head coach.
“I thought last year was going to be a rebuilding year and we won the (area),” he said. “This year has a totally different feel. They know they are the favorites and are practicing like it.”
Most of the team experienced last year’s success. Southeast only graduated one senior — libero Carli Ledford, an all-area selection who signed a scholarship with Truett-McConnell — and returns six players with significant varsity experience.
The biggest returning star is senior outside hitter Megan Collins, The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Player of the Year for 2011, when she averaged 5.6 kills per game. Another senior, setter Hannah Graham, had 870 assists and 66 aces on her way to all-area team honors a year ago. Senior libero Makayla Burse, junior middle hitter Wendy Perez, junior outside hitter Serena Ramsey and sophomore middle hitter Yolanda Melgarejo also return.
“For leadership, our seniors will have a big role in keeping everyone focused,” Dickey said. “Hannah and Megan started playing (junior varsity) as eighth-graders. They started playing varsity as a freshman. So this will be their fourth year on varsity and Makayla’s third year. They experienced winning the (area) last year and want to go further.”
The team recently competed at Harrison High’s preseason tournament and reached the final pool.
“Every team in our final pool was either in the state championship or in the final four (last year),” Dickey said. “I said, ‘Here’s your chance. You earned your shot to be here, so play like it.’ And we competed.”
Last year’s season ended in the second round of state against Riverwood. Dickey wants to go two wins further this year and earn a place in the state semifinals.
“We talked about it. We want to reach the final four this year,” he said. “That is the goal we have set, and once we get there, you never know.”
Southeast’s first matches are Thursday in a tri-match at Coahulla Creek that will also include Christian Heritage.
Compiled by The Daily Citizen sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondents Dave Gordon and Larry Fleming.