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.”
New faces, same places
Southeast entered the Area 7 tournament as the second-best team and exited as the area’s No. 2 seed for the state tournament behind Heritage-Catoosa. Last Wednesday, the Lady Raiders sent the home fans happy and won 25-21, 27-25, 25-18 against Fayette County in the first round of the state tournament.
Holding a 30-12 record, Southeast will travel to play Marist, at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The Lady Raiders are ranked seventh in the Ga.PrepCountry.com Class 4A coaches poll. The Lady War Eagles (25-12) are ranked second.
Getting this far, though, was a surprise for some people.
“Before the season, everywhere I walked, people would come up to me and say we won’t be any good this year,” Kenemer said. “Students, parents, teachers and people in the community. They all said the same thing.”
They said it because setter Hannah Graham, the area’s top player in 2012, and outside hitter Megan Collins, the best from 2011, graduated. No one on the roster ever made an all-area team — Perez received an honorable mention last year. They said it because Dickey led the program to its first area titles in 2011 and 2012, won at least 25 matches each of his seven seasons coaching at Southeast and at least 30 matches in two seasons.
Still, Kenemer made sure to let the team know what others thought was an incorrect estimation.
“I told the team the first day after tryouts, ‘It’s time for us to go out and show everyone who Southeast volleyball is. It’s more than three or four people.’”
In stepped Purkey and Perez. In stepped outside hitters Serena Ramsey, Yolanda Melgarejo and Gaby Gonzalez. In stepped defensive specialists Yasmeen Paloblanco and Melisa Fraire.
They had something to prove. They wanted everyone to know the program was more than just three people.
“We wanted to show we could do it,” said Paloblanco, a senior. “I love Megan and Hannah, but it wasn’t all them.”
At first, things weren’t so easy this season for Southeast. The team lost three of its first four matches, started with a 10-6 record and fell to Ridgeland in the second area match of the season.
“It wasn’t that easy,” Perez said. “A few people were frustrated because it wasn’t the same as it was.”
Said Kenemer: “At the beginning of the season, we had our toughest games and lost some. The girls were freaking out, but I told them that by the end of the season, we’d be fine.”
The Lady Raiders followed the loss to Ridgeland with five victories in five matches to win the Coosa Invitational in September. At that point, Kenemer knew that something had changed.
“This is probably the first time where for multiple games in a row we played together as a team,” Kenemer was quoted as saying in The Daily Citizen at the time. “We never dropped off today, so we’re really starting to come together and play as a team.”
From there, wins flooded the schedule and losses diminished. A team that lost six times in its first 16 matches only lost six times through the next 28, and four of the defeats came against Heritage.
Last Wednesday’s win was more than just winning a postseason match. The Lady Raiders now have reached the second round of the state tournament for the fifth consecutive season, and last year’s Southeast squad was the only one to ever advance farther.
That, Kenemer said, is enough to answer any and all questions. People are noticing the answer, too.
“I think that definitely shows we didn’t drop off,” she said. “I saw people around the school and community kind of jump back on the bandwagon. ... They said, ‘You guys are back. You guys are back in the Sweet 16.’”