By Tyler Waldrep
There’s plenty of new faces on the Mountain Brook volleyball team, and all of them are young.
Then again, the whole team is young; there’s only one junior and one senior returning. The head coach who guided Mountain Brook to three state titles in the past three seasons is gone. The list of reasons the Spartans’ luck should finally run out this year could go on.
Half of those reasons existed last year, too.
“People (last season) were, like, ‘Oh, y’all are young. … ’ We lost like three of our really good seniors. ‘And so, like, y’all are not going to win. It’s going to be someone else’s year,’” senior Libby Grace Gann remembered people saying. “But I think going into it we had nothing else to lose and we were the underdogs because everyone else thought we weren’t going to win so it was just, like, really fulfilling knowing that we were proving everyone wrong and we did it anyway.”
The big difference many will point to is the departure of former coach Haven O’Quinn for the same job at Birmingham-Southern College, but her successor, Vickie Nichols, isn’t pumping the brakes.
“The expectation should be that we win the state tournament. It’s not going to happen every year, but we’ve already laid the groundwork by what they’ve done before,” Nichols said. “If you’re not shooting for the top, you’re not going to get there.”
Hit the Ground Running
Nichols found herself attending team tryouts for the 2017 season less than 48 hours after she was officially named the Spartans head coach. She barely managed to squeeze in an introduction to the members of the program.
“She’s had a ton of experience, so that’s made me feel better because she knows the game. She’s been doing it for a long time,” Gann said. “She played in college, she played in high school, she’s coached many different places. I think that was very settling.”
In the past, the Spartans’ new head coach has worked with volleyball programs at the middle school, high school and collegiate levels. Nichols recently returned from a two-year stint in Ecuador, where she worked as a teacher and volleyball coach for the Alliance Academy International in Quito.
Despite her wealth of experience coaching the sport, Nichols found herself in unfamiliar territory during tryouts. The quick turnaround prevented her from learning many names so she had to point at girls and give a, “Hey, you,” when she needed to get someone’s attention.
However, Nichols didn’t need to know the girls by name to recognize their talent.
“The level of play, I think that was one of the things I was impressed with the most,” Nichols said. “Across the board at tryouts, I mean, they were just solid players. I mean good fundamental skills, and you don’t find that a lot in high school from ninth grade through 12th grade. They’re all fundamentally sound.”
With the basics taken care of, Mountain Brook’s immediate concern this year will be solidifying a rotation and establishing good team chemistry within a group that returns only two players who saw significant time on last season’s championship squad – Gann and sophomore outside hitter Grace Carr.
Gann and Carr are expected to be critical to the team’s success this season, but the chance to make yet another championship run will also rely on the Spartan’s secret weapon.
“The camp helped me see how much my junior (Ellen Dulin) is crucial that I hadn’t seen before because it (practice attendance) had been so sporadic until then,” Nichols said. “I hadn’t been able to see how they were all going to function together, but I saw very clearly that one person can’t do it by themselves.”
Dulin spent last season learning her new position as a middle hitter. She previously worked as an outside hitter. But now she’s ready to step up and provide leadership for her younger teammates on and off the court.
“I guess, just sophomore year, I never thought in one year I’d have to take such a big role on the team,” Dulin said. “And now that it’s here, it’s not that bad because Libby is setting such a good example.”
Passing the Torch
Nichols said the relationship between the two upperclassmen is critical. Dulin can lighten the load for Gann, who in turn can forge a path the junior can follow next year, when she is the only senior on the team.
“She (Gann) has the experience,” Nichols said. “She has the knowledge so I’m excited to see (her), because I think even she’ll surprise herself, even this season stepping it up another notch as a senior.”
Gann might step it up a notch on the court, but she’s not concerned with personal glory. If she does her most important job right, Mountain Brook’s tradition of success will continue after she graduates.
“Since I’m the only senior, I want to let other girls shine so they will be more confident next year when I leave,” Gann said.
Quinn isn’t surprised that Dulin and Gann have made such a strong early impression on her successor. She said those two would have risen to the top even if there had been 20 other upperclassmen on the team. She also isn’t surprised to hear that her former player is already looking ahead to next season.
“I really think leadership is a domino effect, and I think she learned from some really high-quality players, and I think she learned what to do and what not to do,” Quinn said. “There’s nobody (in Alabama) that can say that they’ve done what Libby’s done going into her senior year.”
To date, Gann has contributed significantly to three state championship teams. She’s never tasted defeat on the big stage, and at this point she might not even remember how to lose when everything is on the line.
Nichols said she believes the program’s recent success will provide her team, even girls who didn’t spend a lot of time out on the court last year, with a confidence that girls in other programs don’t have. In Class 7A, only the Spartans know what it takes to win a championship, and that might make all the difference when it comes time to defend their title.
“I mean, we lost a bunch. But we still have six girls that got to experience it last year, so they know what it feels like,” Gann said. “So, I feel like we know what we want to do and I think that’s really going to help us out this year, having people that experienced it last year.” ❖