Wendy Perez spent her first fall at Southeast Whitfield cheering on other athletes, but she hasn’t been on the sidelines since her freshman year.
The school’s volleyball program has benefited from Perez’s decision to take the court.
A middle hitter, the junior is in her first year as a starter after subbing at libero last season, when the team won the Area 7-3A title. The Lady Raiders are off to a good start this year as well — they’ve won four of their first five matches and are ranked No. 4 in the Ga.PrepCountry.com Class 4A coaches poll.
While she is still a baby in volleyball years, Southeast coach Jake Dickey is glad to have Perez on his roster. She had been a cheerleader since third grade and continued that pursuit when she began high school.
But that changed.
“We recruited her, all the girls and me,” Dickey said. “We just tried to get her to come out. She played basketball, so I knew she was a great athlete.”
Perez also plays girls basketball — Dickey coaches the boys varsity team — and is on the track and field squad, but she prefers volleyball to any other sport now. However, she was nervous when she began a year ago.
“It was different for me,” Perez said.
“I didn’t know what to expect. Basically the senior girls got me to come play.”
Specifically, it was current seniors Hannah Graham, McKayla Burse and Megan Collins. Graham said the trio — who were then sophomores — “talked to her every single day.” Burse even offered to give her a ride to practices and games.
“And I do give her a ride,” Burse added.
Perez remembers the progression and where the interest in the sport started.
“We had weight training class (in 2010-11) and they would all be like, ‘Hey, you should play volleyball,’” Perez said. “I’d be like, ‘Well, I don’t really want to.’ It was new to me and I didn’t want to do something new. ... My freshman year, even though I was on the cheerleading team, they wanted to fix the schedule where I could do JV cheerleading and JV volleyball. When I asked my mother, she said it was too much for me, because I do take honors classes and stuff.
“So I didn’t play. Freshman year I didn’t really like cheerleading in high school and I told my mom I didn’t want to do it anymore. So I guess I just decided to do volleyball.”
Southeast reached the second round of the Class 3A state playoffs last season after capturing its first area title. While Perez played a part in that success, she was still relying on pure height and athleticism more than skill, Dickey said.
Perez is 5 feet, 10 inches, the tallest on the squad, but never touched a volleyball before joining the team.
“She never played before,” he said. “She was tipping a lot last year. Now we’re working on hitting, and she’s hitting it.”
In fact, it is mostly true for all the girls, because the area’s middle schools — including Southeast feeder programs Valley Point and Eastbrook — don’t have volleyball programs. Some eighth-graders play JV volleyball for the Lady Raiders, but Perez didn’t.
“We don’t have volleyball until we get to high school,” said Collins, who started playing the sport as an eighth-grader after playing softball beforehand.
Perez may be coming into her own, though. She had 15 kills in last Thursday’s tri-match — 10 versus Heritage-Catoosa (8-4) and five against Dalton (8-4) — to help the Lady Raiders pick up two non-area wins against potential Area 7-4A threats and give Dickey his 200th career win as a volleyball coach.
Perez believes the biggest area of improvement is learning to properly kill the ball as well as hitting it with proper form.
The biggest challenge? Passing.
“I’m a middle hitter, but whenever I do play back row I have to pass a lot,” Perez said. “It’s just for one rotation, though. I’ll get better at it.”
Passing is something Graham, a setter, knows a lot about. She has more than 2,000 assists in her Lady Raiders career and is close to setting the school’s all-time digs record. She’s set Perez up for most of her kills.
“She’s smart, too,” Graham said. “She doesn’t just go up there and hit it.”