By Russell Vannozzi for The Robertson County Connection
The 2020 high school volleyball season is less than two weeks away from beginning under the unusual circumstances brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are the normal storylines, of course: three teams – East Robertson, Greenbrier and Springfield – have new head coaches; Ashleigh Shores, the reigning 2019 Robertson County Volleyball Player of the Year, is back at White House Heritage for her final season; East Robertson, Jo Byrns and White House Heritage are all hoping to top their 2019 postseason runs.
But the games will also look different. Crowds are likely to be smaller, extra cleaning measures will be in place and everyone not on the court will be asked to wear face coverings.
Practices have been ongoing since the annual summer dead period ended July 5. The first regular-season games are set for Monday, Aug. 17.
“I tell (the players) pretty much all the time, ‘Just be grateful we got to practice today and keep your fingers crossed for tomorrow,’’ Greenbrier coach Tori Sherer said. “I feel like we’re always one email away from the season being put off.”
Added White House Heritage coach Brandon Niblock: “Things could change at any moment, so we’re just happy to be in the gym each day.”
Below are breakdowns from each team in The Connection coverage area (2019 record in parentheses):
Players to watch: junior setter Reese Pennington, sophomore outside hitter Libby Clark, junior middle hitter Adrean Cole, sophomore libero Kennedy Hester, junior opposite hitter Paxton Furman.
The Lady Indians were the surprise team of 2019. After going 5-16 two years ago, East Robertson and interim coach Connie Caldwell-Rogan won the District 8-A tournament and came up just one win short of clinching its first-ever state tournament berth.
This summer, East Robertson hired former Christian Community School coach Jamie Pennington to provide some stability for the program.
“I think we’re going to make a splash,” Pennington said. “I’m excited, and the girls are working super hard. I think we already look like a totally different team since the (White House) Heritage camp (in early July).”
That camp was the first time Pennington was able to work closely with the team. However, he is familiar with at least one top returnee: junior setter Reese Pennington, his oldest daughter. Reese earned District 8-A tournament MVP and All-Region 4-A honors in 2019.
Several others are also expected to make big impacts, including outside hitter Libby Clark and middle hitter Adrean Cole. Libero Kennedy Hester and opposite hitter Paxton Furman will help with defense and passing.
East Robertson has made five unsuccessful sectional trips in program history. Pennington said he hopes to break that streak – perhaps as soon as this fall.
“We want to be the best team in Robertson County and make it to state,” he said. “We have some high goals and expectations, but if you don’t set them, you won’t reach them.”
Players to watch: junior setter Ashley Marshall, senior outside hitter Carley Clinard, senior outside hitter Katie Clinard.
The Lady Bobcats have a fresh start after coach Kayla Grogan stepped down earlier this year to take care of her young children. Ironically, she was replaced by Tori Sherer, who led Greenbrier from 2013-15 before taking a four-season hiatus to also raise children.
In 2015, the Lady Bobcats went 15-9 and advanced to a Class AA sectional – their best finish since winning back-to-back Class A-AA state championships in 2007 and 2008. Sherer has spent the last month setting high expectations for her new team.
“They have really settled in with me, and I feel like they’ve risen to my expectations,” she said. “It took a few days for them to really understand what I look for, but they’ve been working hard and have begun to trust my system.”
Sherer said that much of Greenbrier’s success will run through setter Ashley Marshall. Outside hitters Carley and Katie Clinard (no relation) are also expected to be key for the Lady Bobcats.
Greenbrier, which has just as many freshmen as it does upperclassmen, only beat East Robertson and Friendship Christian last season. Sherer said she expects better in 2020 and believes the results will largely depend on how the team works together.
“They get tired of me saying this, but we are going to live and die by communication,” Sherer said. “They play so much better and more intensely when they are communicating through the play. They’re a completely different team.”
Jo Byrns (11-3):
Players to watch: junior middle hitter Brooke Dowlen, junior middle hitter Reese Payne, senior left-side hitter Ashlen Bryant, junior setter Grayson Bryant.
Jo Byrns has the luxury of returning most of its personnel from a 2019 squad that won its second straight District 9-A title and advanced to the Region 5-A semifinals. Other than the graduation of All-District 9-A selection Eve Miller, the Lady Red Devils have continuity among their core players.
“The more they play together, the more they kind of mesh,” coach Mary Miller said. “It’s exciting to see them grow year after year individually and as a team.”
Brooke Dowlen and Reese Payne return to anchor the middle. Both made the All-Robertson County team last season.
Jo Byrns’ lone senior, Ashlen Bryant, will move from libero to left-side hitter, while junior Korey Harris will take over at libero. Bryant’s younger sister, Grayson, will serve as the setter.
Miller said she is also excited about her six freshmen who are fresh off winning the 2019 Robertson County Middle School tournament title. Of that group, Julia Arms is slated to have an immediate impact in either the middle or on the outside.
The Lady Red Devils have been stopped in the region semifinals each of the last three seasons. While Miller said she has confidence that her team can win another district title, she has put a renewed focus on making a deeper postseason run.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t win districts this year with the talent we have,” Miller said. “As far as going further, I think majority of that will be a mental thing. They’re going to have to get it in their heads that they belong there, deserve to be there and are more than capable of competing at that next level.”
Players to watch: senior setter Morgan Gunn, senior outside hitter Taylor Sykes, senior outside hitter Mckennah Dunn, senior libero Haley Jones, senior defensive specialist Ellie Friedmann.
Recently hired coach Ann-Marie Cobb has been crossing her fingers that volleyball season can happen in its entirety, especially for her seven Springfield seniors.
“We’re grateful to have a season,” she said. “I have seven seniors, and I would hate for them to not have a senior year.”
Her first summer on the job has come with some disruption. Shortly after the Lady Yellow Jackets held tryouts in mid-July, two players tested positive for COVID-19 and at least four others were forced to quarantine.
“Everything’s been sanitized and disinfected,” Cobb said. “We’re following all the guidelines and the girls are getting their temperatures checked every day. I think we handled it quite well.”
The full team has returned to practice as it scrambles to prepare for the 2020 season. Fortunately, Springfield has plenty of experienced players.
Senior setter Morgan Gunn and senior outside hitters Taylor Sykes and Mckennah Dunn will be heavily relied upon. Two other seniors, libero Haley Jones and senior defensive specialist Ellie Friedmann, are also expected to be key contributors.
The Lady Yellow Jackets racked up more regular-season wins than any Robertson County team last season, but they fell 3-0 to White House Heritage in the District 11-AA semifinals. Cobb said she is looking for a better finish this fall.
“I think we can do just as well if not better,” she said. “I’m hoping we can have a better showing in the postseason.”
White House (5-15)
Players to watch: junior Megan Thompson, senior Ally Grace Sloan, junior Lacey Escue, junior Justine Lowe.
The Lady Blue Devils struggled down the stretch in 2019 and lost their final eight games, including a 3-0 defeat to Macon County in the first round of the District 11-AA tournament.
But White House only graduated two seniors and it returns a talented junior class that includes Megan Thompson, Lacey Escue and Justine Lowe. Thompson landed on the All-District team with a 1.87 serve receive percentage and 356 digs last season.
The Lady Blue Devils will open their 2020 campaign with two seniors, Phebe Barlow and Ally Grace Sloan, on Aug. 17 at Jo Byrns.
White House Heritage (16-20)
Players to watch: senior outside hitter Ashleigh Shores, senior middle hitter MC Abell, junior setter/hitter Mackenzie Geer, senior middle hitter Chloe Pentecost.
The Lady Patriots ended their 2019 season in a harshly familiar way: with a loss to Camden in the Region 6-AA semifinals. The same result happened in 2017 and 2018.
White House Heritage coach Brandon Niblock said his team is “tired of losing to Camden, especially when we know we can hang.” Last year’s match went five sets for the first time.
“Camden is a perennial program, so a team like that is used to winning and walks into the gym with a winning mindset,” Niblock said. “Last year was the furthest we’ve been – five sets. But our kids aren’t satisfied with that.”
If there was ever a season for White House Heritage to advance further, it might be this one. The Lady Patriots return a deep roster, including senior outside hitter Ashleigh Shores, who led the county with 238 kills last season.
“Nothing really slows her down,” Niblock said. “She does her job really well. She is a calming presence on the court.
“When Ashleigh doesn’t play well, the rest of the team tends to follow suit. She’s definitely someone we all look to, and we’re going to need her.”
Seniors MC Abell and Chloe Pentecost will hold down the middle, while junior Mackenzie Geer and sophomore Hannah Meyers will share setting and right-side hitting duties. Geer led the team with 600 assists in 2019.
Addison Waggoner is back as a libero. Freshmen Ava Tate and Madi Horton are competing for a spot on the outside.
Niblock said the focus during summer and preseason practices has been to get the most out of what appears to be a talented group.
“We feel really skilled,” he said. “We’ve tried to add more gritty drills to keep them competitive regardless of what’s (happening) on the other side of the net. We’ve done a lot of stuff to really push (our) top-level players.”