When Jake Dickey took over the Southeast Whitfield volleyball program, his team had only seven players. The coach has around 15 times that amount of students ready to cheer on the Lady Raiders when they take the court at Atlanta’s Marist School for Wednesday’s Class 4A state semifinals.
He won’t take credit for that success, but the numbers don’t lie.
Dickey’s tenure has been an era of area titles and postseason appearances, and now the Lady Raiders’ dreams of a state championship are two wins from becoming reality.
As the fourth-seeded Lady Raiders (37-10) prepare for Wednesday’s semifinals matchup at 7:30 p.m. against top-seeded Sandy Creek (35-19) — the Lady Patriots are the top-ranked team in the Ga.PrepCountry.com Class 4A coaches poll, while Southeast is second — Dickey does not want to point to himself as the main cause.
“It’s a good feeling to be successful,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s ever just one person.”
Still, the facts point back to him.
Before he arrived in Whitfield County, Southeast was not known for volleyball success, having never previously made the state playoffs.
Since then, it has become a flagship sport for the school on the level of boys soccer. Southeast went to the second round of the volleyball state tournament in 2006 — Dickey’s first year as head coach — and has reached as far three additional times, including this season. Southeast has won back-to-back area titles, the first two in program history, and Dickey has led the team to two straight seasons with 30-plus wins; the team has won at least 25 matches in all of his seasons. This year’s win total is a program best.
From seven years ago to now, it has been a complete makeover. Now, there are thoughts of bringing home the school’s first team state championship ever — the boys soccer team reached the Class 4A final in 2008, but lost to Lakeside-Dekalb on penalty kicks.
“Ever since he got here, he’s been building up the program,” sophomore middle hitter Yolanda Melgarejo said, “and every year we’ve been getting better. He always has a goal for us. I remember last year we were just trying to rebuild our program, and we did better than any year before. This year (the goal) was the final four. So I was thinking, ‘If last year we went farther than our goal was, then is it going to be the same thing?’”
Dickey came to Southeast in 2005 as an assistant under coach Karey Williams, who now is the school’s principal. The plan always was to groom Dickey to take over.
“That year I was finishing up my administrative coursework and knew it was the way to go,” said Williams, who started in 2000 as coach of the program, which she said it started in the late 1990s. “When he was hired in, he had been coaching before that. When he came in, he did a real good job and began working together that year and even started the transition that year.”
The team did not finish with a winning record but was one win from reaching the state tournament in 2005.
“I got to do a lot of the practices, which helped because I got comfortable with the girls,” said Dickey, who was a volleyball coach during the 2004 season at Apalachee High in Winder.
Prior to that, he was a boys basketball and baseball coach at White County in 2002 and 2003. He graduated from Troy University with a master’s degree in education. He went to Okaloosa-Walton Comm-unity College, now called Northwest Florida State College, for his undergraduate studies.
Dickey graduated from Freeport High in Florida, but spent three years at California’s El Cajon Valley High, where he played volleyball.
“An advantage I have is I used to set a little bit,” Dickey said of his playing days, “and there’s not a lot of strong setter coaches in the area, so we’ve had the best setter, I think, for every year.”
The first season for Dickey did not start easily. Only seven players were on the roster — thanks to one player being injured, one transferring and one quitting the team. Despite the obstacles, Southeast finished second in the area behind Dalton.
“The first year was rough because I only had seven girls who stuck with it,” Dickey said. “One was a freshman and we had two sophomores. One of them got hurt the year before and one moved. It was a rough start, but we ended up in the (area) championship that year.”
One of the biggest challenges is taking over a program that continually brings in eighth-graders and freshmen who never have played the sport before. Whitfield County middle schools do not have volleyball programs, so for a lot of girls — like junior outside hitter Serena Ramsey — that first practice is the first instruction they ever receive.
“Coach Dickey taught me everything,” said Ramsey, who played on the JV team her eighth-grade year.
Williams also experienced having to start with basics like how to serve properly with newcomers to the program.
“There’s a lot of growing and training that has to happen in a short period of time,” she said. “I think one thing coach Dickey has done really well is summer play dates and a lot of summer volleyball (activity).”
Despite other schools in the state having experienced players coming in as ninth-graders, Dickey keeps eliminating the gap in players’ skills over time.
“We train our players and know of certain key positions that you have to have strong players for,” he said. “Luckily, in volleyball it’s not like football and you don’t have to have as many strong players. So you can train a core of three or four and then train the other players to a certain position.”
The current senior class — deep setter Makayla Burse, outside hitter Megan Collins and setter Hannah Graham — is the most successful in program history. Their freshman year, 2009, marked the first of four straight state tournament appearances, all of which included at least one victory. Last year, Collins won the Area 7-3A Player of the Year award and The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Player of the Year award. This season, Graham took home the Area 7-4A Player of the Year honor.
“As early as eighth grade, Hannah and Megan were co-MVPs on the JV team that year,” Dickey said. “I guess I knew they’d be a good class then.”
But four juniors — Ramsey, Stevie Sharp, Yasmeen Paloblanco and Wendy Perez — are the next crop who could keep the consistency going.
“We’ll have more girls playing club volleyball this year, so I think that will help,” Dickey said, noting he does not push the players to do it and simply leaves it to their discretion. “I say, ‘Here’s an option. It’ll help you if you do it.’ But I don’t know if they can afford it.”
That fits right in line with his calm coaching style. It’s rare to see Dickey show any emotion during a match.
“I think your team is a reflection of you,” he said. “So if I get all worked up like that, then it affects them. If I stay laid back, then they will. That’s what we try to teach the girls: one play at a time. After one play, go to the next one.”
Said Perez, “He finds a way to get to you to play better. It’s just the way he says stuff. ... Some girls aren’t used to coaches yelling at them and they won’t take it very well.”
This is a lesson Dickey learned while coaching at Apalachee.
“I’ve done it with teams before, but I’ve found it really doesn’t work well,” Dickey said. “At Apalachee we were fifth in the state, and the team had never had a winning season before. We were 27-16, and made the (area) championship. We went to a tournament, and I yelled one time at them pretty good, and they just shut down.”
Instead, Dickey focuses on practices. He wants his teams to be exceptional at serving and service receiving, along with digging kill attempts.
“We always hit them hard,” he said. “I was 6 feet, 2 inches in high school, so I could set and hit. My assistant coaches are great, too, so we bring it at them. We dig a lot of balls in practice. I think that gives us an advantage, because any girl who hits it won’t hit it as hard as we do. Even the really good ones. They’re used to that, so it’s just another day at practice.”
Paloblanco transferred from Dalton to Southeast this year and already has noticed the positives of Dickey’s coaching style in her one season as a Lady Raider.
“He sets out the whole playbook for us and keeps us motivated and pumped up,” she said. “So we already know the other team before we step out onto the court. ... He stresses service receives and wants us to have a perfect pass every single time.”
Against Sandy Creek, Southeast may need all of its passes to be perfect to keep its run going. But this is already the most successful season in Southeast history, and Dickey is the most successful coach in program history.
Here’s another number: 110, the estimated number of Southeast students signed up as of Monday afternoon to take a bus ride down to Marist on Wednesday to watch the Lady Raiders against Sandy Creek.
“That was amazing,” Dickey said. “I didn’t even know if we’d get a full bus. You have to pay $7 and get waivers signed by parents. To have 100-something after the first day, it could be two or three buses going.”
Host Marist, the No. 3 seed, will play second-seeded Columbus at 5:30. The winners of Wednesday’s semifinals will play at 7 p.m. Saturday at Marietta High for the state title.