The talent was there. All the Gainesville High volleyball team needed was someone to put it all together, and a player to distribute the ball to the right people.
With those two pieces in place to start the season, a program that had never before posted a winning season is now on the verge of clinching a spot in the state tournament.
Not only have the Lady Red Elephants (19-7, 5-1 area 8-AAA) assured themselves of a winning season, they are one win away from a 20-win season after a 25-20, 25-18 victory over Tallulah Falls on Wednesday night at Gainesville on Senior Night. Senior Katelyn Whelchel led the way, recording three straight aces and eight consecutive service points to pull away in the second game. It was the eight-player strong senior class that determined to alter the program course.
“We decided at the end of last season that we were tired of losing,” said senior libero Daphne Ragone. “We wanted to make this a season to remember for all of us.”
The team won just eight matches in 2010 and five in 2009, but all it took were a few changes to the roster and a renewed dedication from the team to pave a very different road in 2011.
First-year coach Randi Orr, who was actually the junior varsity coach last season, turned the talent group of players in to a winning team.
“It was heartbreaking to see very talented players not finish,” Orr said. “The talent has always been there, now we put it all together.”
Orr came from Maryland, where high school volleyball is more popular, and she played high school volleyball matches that she said were the most popular sporting events at the school. She came to Brenau University on an athletic scholarship and then found herself at Gainesville High in 2010.
Her presence at the helm of the varsity was felt immediately.
“Definitely the coaching staff has changed the team a lot,” Ragone said. “A lot more experience.”
With Orr taking charge and building a foundation for the program, and the returning players dedicating themselves to club volleyball and practice in the offseason, Gainesville looked to be on its way up as the season neared.
Then small private school Jubilee Christian is not fielding a varsity volleyball team for this season, and many of the players from the Christian school's powerhouse program moved to either Gainesville or Johnson.
Kaylin Walden was one of those students to enroll at Gainesville, and the experienced setter was able to fill in the crucial role right away.
“Our setter, Walden, came from Jubilee and has had a huge impact,” Ragone said.
With the new pieces in place, the Lady Red Elephants embarked on a campaign unlike any other in program history.
Tuesday night the turnaround was truly complete as Gainesville upset area 8-AAA opponent West Hall (23-3, 7-2) in two games.
“It was a huge statement for our program,” Orr said. “It set the tone for the level of competition that will now be played in this area.”
West Hall coach Joe Nelson, whose team had defeated Gainesville earlier in the season, was in agreement.
“The two matches we have played have been hard and fast and we expect to see them again,” Nelson said.
Gainesville still has work to do this season with four matches remaining, including three area matches. The Lady Red Elephants host Chestatee Sept. 28 for the first of those three 8-AAA matchups.
Now instead of getting ready for the season’s end, Gainesville is in the midst of a postseason run in a talented area.
“As of now I would say there are six to seven teams capable of acquiring the four spots that will be allocated for the state tourney,” Nelson said.
The Lady Red Elephants are in the driver’s seat in terms of securing not just a postseason spot but a No. 2 seed behind Oconee County, which would mean yet another first in program history, a state tournament home game.
As incredible as this season has been for Gainesville, Orr is already prepared for future success, having built a pipeline to the middle school to gather talent as well as building strong junior varsity and freshman class.
“I want to keep this program strong,” Orr said. “Gainesville’s no longer the underdog.”
Turnarounds like this usually take time. But with the right pieces and a strong senior core, the Lady Red Elephants have jumped quickly from the basement to the top floor of 8-AAA.