Dalton at North Hall, 6 p.m.
West Hall at Ringgold, 6 p.m.
OAKWOOD — When West Hall High volleyball coach Joe Nelson took over the program in 2009, his first order of business was find out where his new team stood. A veteran of now 17 years coaching the sport in Charlotte, N.C. and Hall County, Nelson had to know the expectations of the Lady Spartans to gauge how serious they were about winning.
“I asked the team last year, ‘What do you want to get out of this,’” Nelson said.
After laying the ground work with a successful season in 2009, West Hall (27-16) found a groove this season and will face Ringgold (27-7) in the second round of the state playoffs at 6 tonight in Ringgold.
This month, the Lady Spartans have answered Nelson’s question by playing their best volleyball; both losses in a 7-2 mark came against Area 8-AAA champion Oconee County.
“This crew is really dedicated to the game,” said Nelson, who won his 350th career match Saturday against Troup. “They’ve meshed together really well and bonded really well.”
Meanwhile, North Hall (27-13) also survived the first round of state and will play host to Dalton at 6 tonight. The Lady Trojans defeated Shaw in Columbus on Saturday to keep their season alive.
From his initial diagnosis, Nelson learned that the confidence of his players was quite low. He also felt like in order to improve that, they needed to improve the pride in the program.
“It definitely pays off having a coach that knows the game so well, as opposed to an amateur,” sophomore middle hitter LeNiesha Kearse said. “He pushes us as a coach and really cares about us doing well.”
The experience playing past the first round of the state tournament has players both excited and nervous. West Hall appreciates the level of Ringgold’s talent, the Area 7-AAA champion, but at the same time fully expects to win if playing its best.
“We expect to win,” junior defensive specialist Summer Schmeltz said. “It’s going to be tough, but we can do it.”
Despite hitting a rough patch around the midway point of the season, when the team lost six of its seven matches, the Lady Spartans focused on improving their communication.
Of course, a savvy coach like Nelson can also take a loss and turn it into a learning experience. He said the real turning point to the season was a loss to Chestatee during that rough stretch, which the team used as a moment to circle the wagons and focus on improving — mainly, not defeating themselves.
“Coach Nelson always tells us not to shoot ourselves in the foot,” junior defensive specialist Sonny Xayavongsa said. “That’s one of the little motivational speeches he’ll give to us.”
By the end of the regular season, if a team was going to win against West Hall, they were going to have to earn it. In the Area 8-AAA tournament, West Hall battled the heavy favorite to win, Oconee County (33-14), and after a loss in the first match, they met up again in the championship round.
The foundation for all the improvement within the team is better communication. Players said they talked more in practice about clearly defining their roles, along with standard conversation during the school day about working on verbal feedback.
“We’re more like a family than a team,” Xayavongsa said.
As a result, they’ve seen a tangible difference in serve-receives, passing and blocking. Nelson knows that with the athletic ability of his team, the bar should be set high.
“I know what this team is capable of doing, like in the first round against Troup, we were just clicking all around,” Nelson said. “They really feed off of positive reinforcement.”