Posted: Wednesday, August 15th 2012 at 2:28pm
Area volleyball teams hope to continue growth
By Morgan Lee Editor
Joe Nelson remembers a time, not so long ago, when volleyball was little more than an afterthought in Georgia.
“I came here in 1995 from Charlotte (N.C.) to coach girls basketball in Habersham County, and I remember asking the school athletic director about volleyball and being told, ‘we don’t have that in Georgia,’ ” Nelson said. “I was in shock. It had been around in Charlotte since the early 70s.”
Nelson set about trying to change that, convincing Habersham Central to initiate a program and moving on to do the same at North Hall.
Now volleyball is as mainstream is at gets in Georgia and the GHSA and Nelson is coaching the sport at yet another area school, leading the West Hall program.
“Now we’ve got I think 385 schools playing it,” Nelson said. “And it’s come a long way in this area.”
Indeed, north Georgia now produces plenty of state playoff teams, and while the area is yet to catch up with Atlanta programs -- some of whom have been playing the sport for multiple decades -- it is producing better and better players each season.
“All the teams around here are at or near a state level now,” said Nelson, who is in his 18th season coaching the sport -- Nelson has mentored North Hall’s Emi Hughes, Chestatee’s Julie Rushing and Gainesville’s Randi Orr.
That certainly includes Nelson’s Lady Spartans, who were Area 8-AAA runners-up in 2011 and reached the second round of the Class AAA playoffs. Gainesville (2011 quarterfinalist), North Hall, Buford and Jefferson each reached the state postseason a year ago, while Flowery Branch and Lakeview Academy have been playoffs fixture in recent campaigns.
“It has gotten so much more intense with the growth of clubs and the amount of girls playing in the offseason,” Hughes said. “A lot of the kids know they have no choice but to play year-round now. Just in my five years I have seen the competition levels rise a lot.”
Yet there are still plenty of youths introducing themselves to the sport once they enter high school, and coaches say there is still plenty of room for growth.
“With the lack of middle school programs in Hall County, we have to push the kids to play club ball,” said East Hall coach Ted Deppe, whose team put together its first 20-win season in program history in 2011, breaking several records en route. “Even a good athlete will take a year, a year-and-a-half or more to adjust to this sport.
“Then you’ve also got to do the cardio(vascular training) and get in the weight room, work on your arm speed to be the best you can be.”
It is that factor that keeps many area coaches focused on training the basics -- especilly to younger players in their programs.
“You still have to do a good bit of teaching,” Hughes said. “You have to kind of catch the younger players up and trust your older players to keep learning as they grow. I’m always focused on teaching the basics.”
Those basics seem to be drawing plenty of admirers -- across northeast Georgia, which will feature plenty of talented teams in 2012.
Gainesville made the deepest run of any area squad last season -- in its second campaign under coach Orr -- and returns a number of experienced players, including senior setter Kaylin Walden, senior outside hitter Anna Walker, junior libero Lauren Carter, senior outside hitter Stasha Hopkins and senior middle hitter Laura Beth Lotentz.
The Lady Falcons just missed out on the state playoffs in 2011, going 22-16 overall and 8-2 in area play. Flowery Branch will return a strong nucleus in 2012, including outside hitter Colleen Grider, middle hitter Autumn Luken and right side Kayla Adolf. The group should be strong defensively and hopes to be competitive after moving up from Class AAAA.
Meanwhile, Area 5-AAA -- which includes West Hall, North Hall, Buford and East Hall -- features four of the Class AAA top 10 (No. 5 West Hall, No. 6 Buford, along with No. 1 St. Pius and No. 2 Blessed Trinity).
“It’s one of the toughest areas anywhere,” said Nelson, whose team opened its season this past weekend by claiming the East Hall Spikefest for the second straight year.
The Lady Spartans return both middle hitters from 2011 in Kelsi Jones -- whom Nelson believes has a major collegiate future -- and LeNiesha Kearse. Setter Laykin Heford is also back after setting the school assist record. And outside hitter Carrie Ruis should add a versatile set of skills.
They will face off against a North Hall team that won 25 matches in 2011 and also reached the Class AAA Sweet 16.
The Lady Trojans will feature sophomore outside hitter Sydney Cleveland, who will be looked to for leadership after a breakout freshman campaign. Meanwhile junior setter Kristina Gregory will also play a key role, as will senior libero/outside hitter Allie Staub. North Hall also has some young talent coming through and hopes it can provide a boost in 2012.
They will also be tested in area play by Buford, which went 24-14 in 2011, finishing just behind Greater Atlanta Christian and reaching the Class AA “Sweet 16,” before moving up to Class AAA.
The Lady Wolves will lean on four returning starters, including junior outside hitter Maggie Roper (338 kills, 83 aces, and 272 digs in 2011), junior middle blocker Hannah Manley and sophomore liberos Mikhayla Riegel and Corbin Farr. Roper was an All-Area performer each of her first two seasons with Buford.
Senior middle hitters Kat Tatum and Manley were both injured last season and didn't play many matches but have plenty of potential.
East Hall will also look to continue its growth as a program after its best ever campaign in 2011. The Lady Vikings know they face a challenge but feature six strong starters and a key seventh player off the bench.
Senior setter Brittney Campbell holds the school record with 995 career assists, while senior outside hitter Emily Hoggard also broke the school block record last season with 69. Fellow senior outside hitter TT Shelton also broke the school record for digs last season, while junior outside hitter Tarryn Long set a new mark for kills with 290. Junior libero Kara Hix also set the record for points scored on serve in 2011. Sophomore middle hitter Emily Roberts will also play a key role.
Also in Class AA, Jefferson will look to make its mark in Area 6-AA, which also features power programs Greater Atlanta Christian and Wesleyan.
The Lady Dragons went 32-10 last season, reaching the second round of state after finishing as area runners-up but will feature a young squad in 2012.
Senior middle hitter Sarah Wood returns to start her third season for Jefferson, while senior middle hitter Hannah Murphy and senior outside hitter Amanda Flowers are also returning letter winners -- the only varsity players on squad to do so.
In Class AAAA, Johnson moves up, along with old rivals Chestatee and Lumpkin County, to Area 8-AAAA
The Lady Knights boast six seniors, five of whom are returning starters, including outside hitters Savannah Turk, Lejavian Ratliff and Christian Petit, middle blockers Lindsey Anderson and Karis Sloan and defensive specialist Heather Luc. Junior setter Kelly Chance will also play a key role.
And in Class A, Lakeview will look for success under first year coach Rena Millwood. The Lady Lions will feature junior middle hitter Shelby Ross, sophomore outside hitter Katie White and sophomore setters Delaney Jarrett and Bailey Towles.
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