It’s not common for a fifth-grader to excel at setter drills, but Hannah Graham is not a common volleyball player.
The Southeast Whitfield senior and four-year starter was an individual standout on a talented roster in 2012, helping the Lady Raiders to their best season in program history this fall. Southeast claimed a program-record 37 wins, won an area title for the second year in a row and made its deepest run ever in the state tournament, reaching the Class 4A semifinals before falling to eventual champion Sandy Creek.
For her achievements, Graham has been named The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year. This is Graham’s third all-area selection; she’s the third straight Lady Raider to capture the Player of the Year honor, following Shelby McFarland (2010) and Megan Collins (2011).
Joining Graham on The Daily Citizen’s 2012 All-Area Volley-ball Team, as selected by the newspaper’s sports staff with input from area coaches, are fellow Lady Raiders McKayla Burse, defensive specialist, and Collins, an outside hitter; Dalton outside hitter Susan Meinders; Christian Heritage setter Jessica Seehorn; and North Murray libero Hanna Abdelrazzaq.
Jake Dickey, the Lady Raiders’ head coach since the 2006 season, was an assistant in 2005, the year Graham attended a Southeast volleyball camp as a fifth-grader. There was a drill called “setter’s eye” where players had to try and place the ball perfectly into a basket or circular object.
It’s a tough drill for most girls that age.
“Usually no one gets it into the basket,” Dickey said. “She got several in there as a fifth-grader. You could tell from the way she was holding her hands that she would be good.”
Graham attended the camp at the request of her physical education teacher, Carrie Burch, who now teaches and coaches at Southeast. Graham had never played volleyball before that camp and did not play on an organized team until she and Collins joined Southeast volleyball’s junior varsity program as eighth-graders in 2008. The duo were co-MVPs of that team.
“We did it together because neither one of us wanted to do it alone,” Graham said. “We’ve been friends since the sixth grade when I was at Valley Point (Middle).
“We started playing volleyball and attended these camps together. In eighth grade when we were on the JV team, we would go onto the varsity (practice) court. I’d have to set for them. I was scared to death.”
The four years that followed included as many state tournament appearances and a run that has established Southeast as both a local power — the Lady Raiders followed up 2011’s Area 7-3A title with the Area 7-3A championship — and a serious state-level threat.
This season, Graham had 933 assists on her way to being named the Area 7-4A Player of the Year and earning a spot on the Georgia Volleyball Coaches Association 2012 All-State Team. As the setter, she is considered the “quarterback” of the Lady Raiders’ offense. Most of her plays are passes to outside hitters Collins and Serena Ramsey or middle hitter-combo Wendy Perez and Yolanda Melgarejo.
But she has the freedom and wisdom to pass to whoever needs the ball on any given point. Dickey trusts her enough to allow her the power to run the offense. That’s how highly he thinks of her.
“If we get in a rut, then I might say something to her,” Dickey said. “Otherwise, no, she decides everything.”
However, there were some times when Graham would “dump” the ball over the net on the second hit, whether it be finding an opening in opposing defenses or forcing a not-so-great hitter to handle the ball. That resulted in 110 kills this season.
“I’ve done it for a couple of years but I just started doing it a lot this year,” Graham said, noting her club volleyball coaches encouraged her to start using the tactic. “Usually it’s just dropping it into a spot because most defenses don’t play there.”
The best part is hearing the other team’s reaction.
“I’ve heard a few explicit words,” she said. “It really is hilarious. When we hear something, we’ll crack up.”
She also accumulated 403 digs for the year, giving her more than 1,000 for her career and barely edging out Collins for the program’s all-time No. 1 spot, and collected 76 aces.
“I did not expect to get that many digs,” said Graham, who also holds the school’s career records for assists. “That’s what (Dickey) told me and I didn’t expect that at all.”
From being a fifth-grader attending a camp to an eighth-grader playing her first organized volleyball game to a senior breaking program records and leading her team to its first appearance semifinals, Graham didn’t do too bad.
Looking back, she called the last win the best moment from the past four years.
“The win (against Woodland-Henry) to get to the semifinals,” she said. “The quarterfinals match. That was awesome.”
Here’s a look at the rest of this year’s all-area team:
• Megan Collins, outside hitter, Southeast: If Graham was the Lady Raiders’ quarterback, then Collins was the Jerry Rice to Graham’s Joe Montana.
It’s impossible to think of one without the other.
The 2011 Area 7-3A Player of the Year, Collins started on varsity her sophomore year as a middle hitter but moved outside as a junior. It equaled 558 kills and 456 digs a year ago and was the first big chunk on her way to becoming the first 1,000-1,000 club member in Southeast volleyball history. She finished with 523 digs and a team-high 462 kills this year, earning a spot on the GVCA all-state team alongside Graham.
“Her and Hannah are No. 1 and No. 2 on career digs,” Dickey said. “They’re the only two who went over 1,000.”
While Collins might not jump as high as some of the state’s top players, she may have the best placement of anyone in the area when it comes to kill attempts.
“She controls it for sure,” Dickey said. “She is consistent and didn’t make a lot of errors.”
But what impressed Dickey most of all was her demeanor. She was the quiet one of the three-headed senior group this season for Southeast but also was the “go-to player” after establishing herself in the role in 2011.
“Usually the whole time she’s pretty even-keeled. She doesn’t get up or down too much,” he said. “She might miss a shot once or twice but she’ll go back to it. She’s been the go-to player I would say for the last couple of years. Whenever we needed a kill, she is the one we go to usually.”
This is her second all-area selection.
• Susan Meinders, outside hitter, Dalton: Meinders made the all-area team for a second straight season after leading the Lady Catamounts to a second-place finish in Area 7-3A and the second round of the state tournament for the third straight season.
But it’s tough to figure out where she is most valuable. Her kills total hit 371 as she collected 366 digs and 32 aces. Lady Cats coach Joey Wills believes her athletic ability — she did win a Class 3A state championship in the 300-meter hurdles this spring — is second to none.
“As far as athletic ability, she is one of the best in our area. Period,” Wills said. “It doesn’t matter what the sport is. If she decided tomorrow she wanted to play basketball, then she could play basketball.
“In addition to that, her work ethic is stronger than just about any player I’ve ever had. She strives to do 100 percent every day in practice. She cares about not only her performance but her team’s performance. She’s just a great leader.”
The first time Meinders showcased her volleyball abilities was as an eighth-grader, when she attended a clinic at Dalton. That’s when Meinders started jumping and left Wills starstruck.
“I thought, ‘Man, she can jump,’” he said. “No. 2, I thought, ‘She’s so skinny. What’s going to happen when she hits the floor?’ But she’s proven to be tough in all of those aspects.”
So tough that the smile she often wears disappears when the ball leaves her hand for the serve.
“She’s one of those who has a fire in her belly that turns on and you’re not going to beat her if she’s determined to get that point,” Wills said. “If I could bottle that up, then I’d be a billionaire.”
• Jessica Seehorn, setter, Christian Heritage: The senior wasn’t a traditional setter, because players at that position usually don’t make more kills than assists.
But for the Lady Lions, Seehorn had to play a number of roles, and her former coach believes she could do the same for other area squads.
Making her second straight all-area appearance, Seehorn collected 208 kills, 176 assists and 107 aces for Christian Heritage, which jumped from GISA to GHSA Class A play this fall.
“Talent-wise, she’s just a fantastic player,” said Kim Parsons, who resigned as Christian Heritage’s coach earlier this month. “The thing that makes her so outstanding is her dedication to the sport, staying in shape and the leadership she offers. She’s one of those girls who when she commits to something, she puts it first.”
Within Christian Heritage’s 6-2 formation, which has two setters, Seehorn is either setting, hitting, serving or playing defense on each play. In other words, she has many roles.
“Her sets are always on spot,” Parsons said. “She’s got a great jump serve. She’s got a great hit. And she’s great defensively. She probably had the most assists and (digs) on the team.
“At the same time, she is there encouraging all the players. She’s not conceited.”
A college decision has not been made, but Parsons believes it’s on Seehorn’s horizon. In her hypothetical past, Parsons believes Seehorn’s star could’ve been just as bright for any local school.
“She could easily play on Southeast, North Murray or any of the larger schools,” Parsons said. “She could start and be a huge asset to any team.”
• McKayla Burse, defensive specialist, Southeast: The Lady Raiders coaching staff grades serve reception on a three-point scale. If your pass to the setter allows for just one hitter to set, then it is a 1.0. Two available options equals a 2.0 and a pass good enough for the setter to go to any of the three hitters is a perfect 3.0.
A perfect game is rare, but Burse did it.
With 432 digs, the senior often wore the label of defensive specialist. But how she handled opposing serves may be her best attribute on the court.
“She is good and her (serve reception score) was the highest since I’ve been here,” Dickey said. “... Her average for the season was a 2.0.”
As a team, Southeast sometimes got 2.0, with highest a 2.3. Usually a 2.0 is the norm for high school squads, Dickey said, with colleges in the 2.6 range. As individuals, it is the same. But Burse scored perfect once, although Dickey could not remember the opponent.
“She had a 3.0 game. She passed all threes one game,” said Dickey, who was uncertain of the opponent. “I don’t remember anyone doing that here. She had 10 or 11 passes that game and it was all 3’s.”
On a team with Graham and Collins, it could be easy to get lost in the shuffle — but Burse became one of the more vocal Lady Raiders and often was the important first part in the team’s three-hit sequence.
“It’s kind of neat because we have one of the best serve-receivers in McKayla, one of the best setters in Hannah and one of the best hitters in Megan,” Dickey said.
This is Burse’s first all-area appearance.
• Hanna Abdelrazzaq, libero, North Murray: It’s rare that a player is OK with passing up the chance for kills.
Abdelrazzaq is one exception, though, and that fit perfectly for the Lady Mountaineers.
The senior had 307 digs on the season, getting 95 percent of her dig attempts over the net and in bounds. She has played four years and has seen the program grow from the start. She started as a freshman in the school’s first year when it had primarily a JV schedule and was an important cog in the team’s trip to the second round of the Class 3A state playoffs this year in its first state berth.
And she has seen it all unfold from the back row.
“When I took the program over, she said, ‘I want to be the libero. That’s what I want,’” North Murray coach Connie Hudgins said. “She had that in her mind when she was in her ninth- and 10th-grade years.”
Often Hudgins hears requests from players who want to go for kills or assists. Abdelrazzaq never once was part of that group. The harder the shot is at her, the happier she becomes.
“She was not selfish. She didn’t mind not hitting the ball over,” Hudgins said. “She’d rather someone else do that. She loved it. The harder you hit it at her, the harder she would smile.”
This is her first all-area appearance.
• Honorable mention: Coahulla Creek — Becca Bailey (So., S), Erin Orem (So., OH); Dalton — Kara Pendley (Sr., S), Molly Martin (Sr., OH); North Murray — Casey Chapman (Sr., OH), Iliana Munguia (Sr., S); Northwest Whitfield — Mary Kate Allen (Fr., MH), Shelby Douglas (Sr., LIB); Southeast — Wendy Perez (Jr., MH).