Before playing a single match this season, Bethany Kenemer faced a lot of doubt about her Southeast Whitfield High School volleyball team’s prospects.
Her response to the questions was a question of her own.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
When the Lady Raiders started the season, the last two of The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Players of the Year had graduated.
The head coach for the previous seven seasons had taken another job.
With a new coach, their best players gone and a ton of questions, how could the Southeast volleyball program possibly measure up to previous years expectations?
Somewhere along the way — and with Wednesday’s first-round win in the Class 4A state tournament — Kenemer and Southeast’s players proved to all doubters the program’s peak includes not just the past, but also the present.
Turning to a smile
Last season was the banner year for Southeast. A trip to the Class 4A semifinal was the best run in program history and broke a three-year wall of losing in the second round.
In the offseason, head coach Jake Dickey, directly connected to the program’s past success, resigned and accepted the head coaching job at West Forsyth High School, which did not make the Class 6A state bracket and finished the season 18-25, according to Ga.PrepCountry.com.
Kenemer, Dickey’s assistant for all seven years, stepped in. An Augusta native who played volleyball four years at Lakeside-Evans and one year at Mercer University, her coaching experience was limited to a summer gymnastics camp.
“If I had not been here before, having never been a head coach, I would’ve been nervous,” Kenemer said. “Just for the fact that I knew the girl, their strengths and weaknesses and what we needed to work on, that took a lot of pressure off me. It was like I had the inside track with them.”
Immediately, anyone could notice the difference between Kenemer’s coaching style and Dickey’s stoic nature that became as common for Southeast fans to see as was winning matches.
“She talks a lot more than coach Dickey did,” said Wendy Perez, the Lady Raiders’ senior middle hitter. “I liked the feeling of him being calm and not saying much to me when I played well because I know I’m playing well. And when he’d get mad, he’d slam his clipboard and that was it. Then you knew you had to do better.”
Kenemer is more energetic. She claps after each point scored, smiles after each ace and is there to encourage after each mistake. As an assistant, Kenemer had to contain her personality to be a bit more in sync with Dickey.
“Sometimes I’d be sitting beside him and going, ‘I want you to yell so much at them,’” Kenemer recalls. “I’d say to do this or that and he’d say, ‘No, I’m going to stay here.’ That was just his personality.”
Said sophomore setter Angie Purkey, “If she’s mad, you can tell she’s mad. It’s rare, though. She smiles and laughs a lot.”
That’s part of being a coach, Kenemer feels.
“In the classroom or outside, I try to stay positive,” she said. “I try to encourage them and say, ‘Hey, that was awesome,’ or ‘Hey, that was OK, but you could do better.’
“I think they feed off whatever emotion the coach has. The coach either gets really up or really down. The team rides the roller coaster with that. ... I want them staying up with me the whole time even if they make a mistake.”