In so many ways, last season for the Gainesville volleyball program was historic, including the most wins and the first trip to the state tournament quarterfinals.
Lady Red Elephants coach Randi Orr hopes that’s only the beginning.
“We have raised expectations, but we are not settling where we ended off last season,” she said. “We knew our potential, and now we’re going to take that to the next level.”
Gainesville has the senior core of players and the support system to turn last season’s success into a jumping board.
It starts with The Times reigning Area Volleyball Player of the Year in senior setter Kaylin Walden, who transferred in from Jubilee Christian Academy for her junior season and set a school record with 711 assists.
Also returning are outside hitter Anna Walker and libero Lauren Carter, both key players on last season’s 24-12 team.
“Now that we’re used to playing with each other, now we can push each other harder,” said Orr, who added that many of her players played club ball in the offseason. “Now they can put everything behind them and take it to the next level.
“The intensity level has risen tremendously, and they’re challenging one another on the court daily.”
The team will have a new challenge in figuring out the new Area 8-AAAAA, featuring a host of new teams to compete against for the region title. In the North subregion, Orr identified Apalachee and Hall County rival Flowery Branch as serious competition.
Still, the team isn’t worried about rising two classifications from Class AAA.
“I have done some research, and we’re not intimated at all with the new region we’re looking at,” the coach said. “The odds are in our favor.”
For many of the teams Gainesville left behind in the lower classification, the odds have only gotten tougher.
In the new Area 5-AAA, West Hall, North Hall and East Hall will have to contend with the likes of Buford (second round of state in 2011 in Class A/AA), St. Pius X (AAA state runner-up) and Blessed Trinity (state semifinals in A/AA).
“Buford will be tough, but even tougher will be Blessed Trinity and St. Pius,” said West Hall coach Joe Nelson. “Both these schools are always in the Final Four or playing for the state championship.”
With the Lady Spartans and North Hall having both reached the second round in AAA last season, the new 5-AAA looks to be one of the tougher areas in the state.
Nelson plans to have his team in the mix.
“One of my concerns was our serve receive and passing. I no longer consider that a minus,” Nelson said after seeing his team come through a summer camp. “Our hitting will be on as much as last year’s team and our floor defense has improved.
“Will it be good enough to take on state powers like Blessed Trinity and St. Pius? We shall see. We are confident that we can compete with anyone.”
In Class AA, Jefferson (second round of the state tournament in A/AA last season) will no longer be competing with as many teams as before with the old A/AA being split into two classifications, meaning Lakeview Academy (6-A) and the Lady Dragons (6-AA) will no longer compete in the same area.
In fact, Jefferson’s new area consists of just four teams, including Greater Atlanta Christian (A/AA state runner-up), Rabun County and Wesleyan (A/AA state quarterfinals).
A tough area to be sure, but it won’t keep Jefferson from the state tournament.
According to the Georgia High School Association, four teams from each area in Class A will advance to a 24-team bracket for tournament play, even in the four-team 6-AA.
Even with a postseason spot already waiting, Paul has been spending his time preparing his young team to make another postseason run, and play a tough area and non-area schedule along the way.
He said he’s happy to see the split up of the classes.
“I am glad that the state has separated Class A and AA. I have felt it was very unfair to have lumped all those schools together,” he said. “This division is a step forward for volleyball in the state.”
Meanwhile, Gainesville is focusing on taking that next step forward for a program that is already expanding with the development of a strong middle school program. Orr even brought her team to a summer event with other Hall County schools that included professional volleyball players who were able to teach the high school players how to improve.
“It was really great,” Orr said. “We’re really trying to build volleyball as a sport here.”
The incredible improvement of the Lady Red Elephants between 2010 and 2011 has certainly helped the case for the sport in the county, but still the Gainesville players aren’t yet satisfied.
“We have challenged ourselves to be a lot more proactive,” said Orr, who has a number of seniors looking to play collegiately. “And we’ve changed things up offensively and defensively.”
Now the senior-led Lady Red Elephants are out to prove that 2011 was just the beginning.