There was a time, not too long ago, when volleyball in Hall County was barely a blip on the radar.
In 1998, just three schools in the county — Johnson, North Hall and Lakeview — had teams, remembered West Hall coach Joe Nelson, who previously coached at North Hall, where he started the Lady Trojans program.
Times certainly have changed.
Three of the four teams representing Area 8-AAA in the state tournament, which opens Wednesday, come from Hall County.
“I have been involved with volleyball in this area for the last 14 years and have seen the quality increase since then,” Nelson said. “There has been a lot of effort by some of us to make this happen and now we are seeing the fruits of that labor.”
No. 2 seed North Hall (24-20), No. 3 Gainesville (23-12, a program record for wins) and No. 4 West Hall (34-7, also a program record for wins) join top seed Oconee County in taking on Area 3-AAA Wednesday. The Lady Trojans host No. 3 seed Westside, Augusta at 5:30 p.m., the Lady Red Elephants travel to No. 2 Cross Creek for a 5 p.m. start, and the Lady Spartans will play at 6 p.m. at No. 1 Grovetown.
Now the Hall County teams have a chance to take on new opponents after a grueling stretch of area play and rivalry matches.
“This has been the toughest competition in our area since I’ve been here,” said Lady Trojans coach Emi Hughes, who played for Nelson at North Hall. But it’s also a sign for Hughes that her team is ready for the postseason.
“We’re definitely a playoff team.”
Two other area schools with a track record of postseason appearances will also be hosting first-round matches. Buford (23-13, No. 2 4-AA/A) will play at 5 p.m. against Brookstone (No. 3 1-AA/A).
Jefferson (31-9, No. 2 8-AA/A) hosts Landmark Christian (No. 3 3-AA/A) at 6:30 p.m.
“We are very excited to not only be in the tournament again this year but to be hosting the first round,” said Jefferson coach Michael Paul. “We hope we can continue to do the things that got us to the state and that is serve well, pass well, and have a balanced attack.”
The Lady Dragons have lost a road match in the opening round the last three years, but Paul hopes that playing at home might change their fortunes.
Hughes and her North Hall squad are also happy to be hosting, and are looking to once again be the standard bearers for the Hall County; last year the Lady Trojans reached the quarterfinals, and this year the team is geared for another long run.
“We definitely have the capability to do the same as last season if not better,” said senior middle Sarah Paschall, who has been to state each of her four seasons on varsity. “Early on this season it was rough and definitely in the middle of the season, but now I feel like we’re a solid team.”
In the area tournament, North Hall advanced all the way to the championship game before falling, winning with defense along the way. It’s a good sign considering the one question mark entering play today is whether outside hitter McKenna Rushton will be available.
The senior, who has paced the powerful Lady Trojans offense this season, hurt her ankle in the area tournament. Hughes said Rushton will be a game-time decision.
Losing the offensive leader would hurt, but North Hall has worked through adversity in a somewhat disappointing 24-20 regular season, a year after entering the state tournament at 26-13.
Hughes doesn’t have a problem with having a tougher regular season now that more good teams are fighting for the four playoff spots from 8-AAA.
“You want to have good competition,” Hughes said, which is why she purposefully scheduled a tough non-area schedule.
“It’s not how we start but how we finish.”
Since falling to Lambert for the fifth loss of a five-game skid, North Hall has gone 6-2, with both losses at the hands of Oconee County.
The stretch included area tournament wins over both West Hall, where Hughes defeated her old high school coach, and Gainesville, where the Lady Trojans took down the surprising Lady Red Elephants, coached by Hughes’ former teammate at Brenau, Randi Orr.
“You always want to step up and play well against the old coach,” Hughes said. “And it’s fun to see (Orr) get (Gainesville) back on track.”
Now in the postseason, Hughes and the other Hall County coaches will be rooting for all three teams to advance and represent the progress that volleyball has made in the region.
At least until a possible meeting in the championship rounds at Marietta.