Last year, four of the seven high school volleyball teams in Murray and Whitfield counties reached their respective state tournaments.
Dalton, North Murray, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield all qualified for state, and the latter’s postseason journey was the longest as the Lady Raiders advanced to the Class 4A semifinals during the deepest run in program history.
But Southeast has undergone plenty of change in the offseason — the Lady Raiders graduated three standout starters and have a new head coach — and so have other programs. While Georgia High School Assoc-iation teams were permitted to begin play this past Monday, Coahulla Creek will be the first local program to start its 2013 schedule when the Lady Colts take the court today for a play day at Sonoraville starting at noon.
Here’s a glance at local varsity programs as the season begins:
The Lions enter their second season of GHSA competition with changes on the coaching staff in addition to the starting lineup.
Robin Clement has taken over as head coach — she replaces Kim Parsons, who resigned shortly following the 2012 season after three years in charge — and Lisa Donahue has joined the staff as community coach, a role she held several seasons ago at Dalton.
The Lady Lions went 13-14 a year ago, including 1-6 against Area 4-A competition, and missed the Class A private school state playoffs. As Clement and Donahue try to help Christian Heritage improve on those results, they’ll count in particular on three returning starters — outside hitter Savannah Robertson, setter Jessica Seehorn and middle hitter Drew Tipton, who started for the first time last season.
All three are seniors, and Seehorn was a member of The Daily Citizen’s 2012 All-Area team after recording 208 kills, 176 assists and 107 aces.
“We didn’t lose any seniors from last season,” Clement said. “We lost one player, Jordan Suddath. She tore her (anterior cruciate ligament) and will be out (for the season). ... (Our players) have a lot of potential. ... They’re excited. Jessica, Savannah and Drew will provide a lot of leadership.
“We have a good junior class and a lot of leadership.”
Clement said the Lady Lions “had a tough schedule last year” — it included Southeast — as they finished below .500. She has been pleased with what she’s seen in offseason work, though, including a 5-3 finish during a recent camp at Covenant College, where the opponents included some nearby opponents as well as Chattanooga private schools.
Clement said the Lady Lions open the season Aug. 20 against Dalton.
The Lady Colts missed last year’s Class 3A state tournament. Getting there is the goal for this year’s squad.
Their returning talent includes a trio of juniors — Macey Fossett, who switches from outside hitter to setter, and outside hitters Erin Orem and Gabby Henderson. Fossett’s switch is the result of Rebecca Bailey deciding not to return this season, but Lady Colts coach Julie Norton said Fossett has “natural talent” in the sport that allows her to be effective at numerous spots on the court.
“She has that competitor’s attitude where she likes to be in control of the play and likes to make sure that ball will not drop,” Norton said. “I need a setter who will make sure to get to the second ball. Not to mention, she has nice, soft hands.
“Erin and Gabby will be big passers and consistent. They want to be finishers and be the ones putting the ball down. ... Gabby has played a season of club volleyball and has become considerably more confident on the front row and back row.”
The Lady Colts finished 13-27 overall last season and were fifth at the Area 5-3A tournament, one spot shy of making state.
Norton said the team’s returning experience should help them make that jump this year.
“It’s a huge goal,” she said. “The girls really want to get to at least the first round. Obviously, every team wants to go as far as you can. It’s the third year (of competition for the program) and I told them we have no excuses. We’re a true varsity team now.”
For three straight years, the Lady Catamounts’ state tournament run has ended in the second round. Last season they were swept by Woodland-Henry.
While improving on the postseason push would be good, with Dalton’s offseason losses including the graduation of standout starters Susan Meinders (hitter) and Kara Pendley (setter) — plus other contributors, like hitter Mollie Martin — it will take work just to get back to that phase of state this season.
“Whenever you lose six seniors, it’s a rebuilding process,” Lady Cats coach Joey Wills said.
“Over the summer and in tryouts, Hannah has stepped up her leadership and will be really important to us this season,” Wills said. “Of course, we want to progress as far as we can, but what I’m after, particularly in the early part of the season, is how we work together and gel.”
The Lady Cats went 23-16 and were Area 7-4A runners-up in 2012. Wills believes the competition in Area 7-4A is wide open and only getting stronger with the emergence of Northwest, which made a surprising run late last season.
“Of course, we want to perform the best as we can,” Wills said. “It’s still going to be a very tough area. ... We can’t overlook anybody and will have to work hard in every match.”
Dalton begins its season Thursday with matches against Coahulla Creek and Northwest. Play starts at 5 p.m.
The Lady Indians won just four out of 23 matches last season, but they were one win versus Chattooga in the Area 5-2A tournament away from reaching state.
This season, Murray County isn’t just shooting for the state tournament.
“Their biggest goal (is) to win area,” Murray County coach Kim Richards said, “because they felt like we have a good chance to do that. They also want to have more wins than losses.”
Returning starters are setters Alex Johnson and Heidy Cabral, both juniors, and seniors Tiffany Markey, a libero, and Keona Brinkman, an outside hitter.
“The girls are excited about how much experience we have coming back, which makes me happy,” Richards said. “After the last week of July, we had a local camp we went to. I saw how the older girls really took to the instruction, and things I tried getting out of them, they started to get. Then we went to the University of Tennessee camp and it emerged, especially from the hitters.”
Richards said one of the team’s problems last season was its inability to “close the deal” in numerous matches.
She hopes that has changed.
“We got close, but out of frustration with ourselves or our teammates — whatever the case may be — we couldn’t close the deal,” Richards said.
“I feel like we’ll have a lot more wins this year.”
Murray County begins its season Thursday with a 5 p.m. tri-match at Ringgold that will also include Darlington.
The Lady Mountaineers are another local team that made an appearance in the second round of state last year.
There will be different players trying to make it two postseason appearances in a row, though.
With the graduation of Casey Chapman, Iliana Munguia, Machaela Bickford and Hanna Abdelrazzaq, North Murray will rely on new names.
Grace Phillips returns from last year’s starting lineup, but may move from middle hitter to setter. Some of the replacements are juniors Harmony Jones, Maggie Dunn and Hayley Hart, plus freshman Hannah Long, a transfer from Christian Heritage.
Earlier this week, Lady Mount-aineers coach Connie Hudgins said some of the positions aren’t set yet because versatile players will give her lineup options.
“It’s going to be a work in progress,” Hudgins said. “The past two years I’ve had the same group out there. The girls I have now (who are juniors) have never played varsity. Most schools are like that, but I feel it’s different. I don’t have two or three juniors. I have a big group.”
The goal for the squad is to make it to the postseason again after finishing third in Area 5-3A and compiling a 17-14 record overall.
Hudgins said her goal is another top-four area finish and trip to state. She knows she’ll have to accomplish that with a different group but believes the Lady Mountaineers will “do fairly well” in the end.
The Lady Mountaineers’ first game is Tuesday at Haralson County.
The Lady Bruins earned Area 7’s No. 4 seed and reached the second round of the Class 4A state tournament a year ago.
Now coach Jennifer Quinn wants to do even better, even if she has few starters returning.
Northwest will lean heavily on sophomores Mary Kate Allen, a middle hitter, and Peyton Maret, an outside hitter, in the race for the area championship against Dalton, Heritage-Catoosa and Southeast — Area 7-4A’s other state qualifiers from 2012 — and others.
Other Lady Bruins returning from last year’s varsity squad are senior Lauren Smith — who will be used for back-row defense — and junior outside hitter McKinley Hopkins.
“We have six people (on the roster) who have never played varsity volleyball before,” Quinn said. “We’re going to be a very young team but very athletic.
“None of (the returning players) played the whole game. They just got three rotations each.”
She wants to improve on last year’s area finish and return to the state tournament. The Lady Bruins finished 18-22 last season.
“I expect to finish higher than that this year just because of their athleticism,” Quinn said. “They are very smart girls. They have athleticism and a hustling mentality. We just have to redefine their skills of volleyball and teach them the right way.
“I can see Mary stepping up and being a leader. I’m bringing up Mad-elyn Logan (sophomore) on the back row as a defensive specialist.”
Northwest begins its season Tuesday at home in a tri-match with Ringgold and Pickens at 6 p.m.
No Jake Dickey as coach.
No Hannah Graham at setter.
No Megan Collins at outside hitter.
No McKayla Burse at libero.
The local volleyball program that has enjoyed the most success lately will look a lot different this year.
The Lady Raiders lifted the local prep volleyball ceiling to the state semifinals last year. This season, it will be up to a new coach and new stars to keep it there or raise it.
Dickey was the most successful coach in the program’s history, helping the Lady Raiders win back-to-back area titles the past two years, reach the second round of the state tournament four times, win at least 25 games each of his seven seasons and at least 30 games twice.
But Dickey is gone. He accepted a job as West Forsyth High School’s volleyball coach in the spring, and Bethany Kenemer — an assistant throughout Dickey’s tenure, which began in 2006 — was named head coach.
Graham, Collins and Burse were selected to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Volleyball Team in 2012. Collins was the newspaper’s Player of the Year in 2011, while Graham took the honor in 2012.
“Our goal is to not drop off,” Kenemer said. “Every year you lose seniors and those juniors step into those spots and fill those roles.”
The returning experience includes middle hitter Wendy Perez, outside hitters Yasmin Paloblanco, Yolanda Melgarejo and Serena Ramsey, and setter Angie Purkey. Perez, a senior, earned honorable mention to last year’s all-area lineup.
“It’s only her third year playing, but she has been coming in early and staying late,” Kenemer said. “She wants to be that go-to person and knows she has to step up to fill the shoes of the seniors.”
Southeast begins its season Thursday at North Cobb in a 6 p.m. tri-match with the host and Riverwood.�