2009 could be called a down year for area volleyball.
Of the 12 programs in the area, only six posted winning records. Though four of those teams (Flowery Branch, Jefferson, Habersham Central and North Hall) advanced to the state playoffs, only Flowery Branch and North Hall made it out of the first round.
To swing some momentum toward area schools, something had to give for the 2010 season. Fortunately, change came in the form of a GHSA region overhaul, a realignment of areas and classifications.
North Hall’s Lady Trojans, who finished 28-15-2 overall last year and open the season at No. 8 in Class AAA in the PrepCountry.com coaches poll, move to 8-AAA this season, joined by area schools Chestatee, Gainesville, Johnson and West Hall.
The Lady Trojans have advanced to the second round of the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, and with eight seniors and four starters returning, coach Emi Hughes is hoping this is the season North Hall finally advances to the quarterfinals.
“I’m excited about our chances,” Hughes said. “We feel like we can get back to the playoffs and possibly go further and have a good shot at winning the area. Hopefully, we’ll get past the Sweet 16, because that’s where we get stuck.”
To get to the postseason, the Lady Trojans must win without Evann Rowland, The Times 2009 Player of the Year. Rowland, a middle hitter, compiled 223 total kills (2.3 per game), 106 aces and 12 assists last season.
“That’s a big hole to fill, but I’m excited about the juniors that can step in,” Hughes said, referring to MaryKate Rushton and Tess Patton.
Another plus for the Lady Trojans is height. With Patton (5-foot-11) and junior Sarah Paschall (5-11), Hughes called this year’s team “the tallest we’ve had in awhile.”
Other key Lady Trojans who Hughes expects to make an impact are setter Kathryn Bell, who led the team in assists last year, and outside hitter Lauren Gregory. Both are seniors and two-year starters. Defensively, libero Megan Cox will be a “big part of the team.”
While playing in a new area lets North Hall avoid last year’s 7-AAA foes West Forsyth — which moved to Class AAAAA — and Creekview, Hughes believes the Lady Trojans will face stiff competition from Oconee County, which finished 35-13 and advanced to the state semifinals last season.
“Oconee always has a strong program and will be our toughest challenge,” Hughes said. “We just have to make sure we stay in check with our rivals around here and I feel like we measure up pretty well against them.
“I like our chances.”
Of the other area schools with winning records, Area 8-AAAA features two: Flowery Branch (21-19, 9-2 7-AAA) and Habersham Central (28-10, 7-3 8-AAAA).
Jefferson (24-11, 8-0 8-A/AA) heads Area 8-A/AA, which also features area schools East Hall, Lakeview and Jackson County.
In Area 4-A/AA, Buford’s Lady Wolves will be led by first-year coach Hadli Daniels, who takes over Marianne Cagle. Daniels has been the program’s JV coach the past four seasons and is familiar with the talent on the roster.
“I’ve coached all of them along the past few years,” Daniels said. “A few of them were on my first team as eighth graders and now they’re seniors. All of the girls have been with me at one point or another.”
Daniels believes a strength for this year’s team is chemistry. The Lady Wolves have five returning starters and five others who started together on last year’s JV team.
The Lady Wolves’ goal is to return to the state playoffs, where they haven’t been in recent seasons. Their postseason hopes will hinge on one day when Buford will play four of its six area contests. Area rival Padeia will host the event and fellow area foes Greater Atlanta Cristian, Avondale and Cross Keys will compete.
“I’ve never been in such an all-or-nothing situation,” Daniels said. “I don’t know if that makes us fortunate or unfortunate. Four matches can be difficult and tiring, so we’ll have to be in good condition. We’ll work on (conditioning) in practice and try to get used to intensity.”