By Rubin E. Grant
Ashley Hardee had admired the Vestavia Hills volleyball program for some time. So, when he got a chance to become the Rebels’ head coach in the spring, he jumped at it.
Hardee took the reins of Vestavia Hills’ program in March and now he’s about to embark on his first season.
“I’m tickled and excited about the opportunity to be the head coach at Vestavia High School,” Hardee said. “It’s a great school with a great tradition.”
Hardee is a longtime volleyball coach, having coached at nearly every level. He was the head coach at the University of North Dakota and was on the staff at UAB, even serving as UAB’s beach volleyball coach. He also spent eight years as an assistant at New Mexico State.
He also has coached at the high school and club levels and been involved with USA Volleyball. The past two years he was an assistant at Chelsea High School.
Hardee relishes the high school volleyball experience.
“The excitement and the tradition, especially at a school like Vestavia, and the energy in the gym, especially on home days, is what I like about high school volleyball,” he said. “The players are good friends who have grown up together. You throw all that together with the energy and it makes it very exciting and fun to watch.”
It’s that enthusiasm, along with his talent, that landed him at Vestavia Hills.
“Vestavia has always been good,” he said. “During my days at UAB and going to their games and watching them play when I was recruiting, I knew they were good. They have always had a number of good athletes. They’ve had varsity, JV and freshman teams, which some schools don’t have, so they have players who like to play the game.
“We were able to run a youth camp earlier this summer and had 90 kids in grades three to six who came. It was a fun. That’s why when the Vestavia opportunity came up, I was real excited.”
Hardee is the Rebels’ third coach in four years. He replaces Payton Mansell, who led the Rebels to the state tournament during the 2020 season in her only year at the helm.
“They had a great run last season and we’re going to try to build off that and make a run at a state championship,” Hardee said. “I’m excited about trying to get to the next level.”
Hardee inherits a team with six seniors returning.
“We have a veteran group,” he said. “They made the state last year, but we’ve got a challenge ahead of us to get to playoffs. I think we have the pieces to get there and then we’ll go from there.
“Angelica Vines, an outside hitter, is one of those athletes I talked about. She will be on the front row and also play some on the back row and play a leadership role. Maggie Ball and Rachel DeFore will be in the middle and also will be counted on for leadership. Alice Armstrong will be the setter and we have Katie Beth Boston, who will be outside hitter and also play on the right side. Izzy Melendez will be on the back row as a defensive specialist.”
The Rebels also have six juniors, outside hitters Savannah Gann and Mackenzie Merrill, right side hitter Kayla Franklin, defensive specialists Elizabeth Jackson and Kaylee Rickert and setter Kate Kaiser. Defensive specialist Audrey Vielguth is the lone sophomore on the roster.
Gann and Franklin are likely starters among the group of juniors.
“Savannah is a talented outside hitter and Kayla is a crossover athlete and an excellent athlete. She’s the starting shortstop on the softball team,” Hardee said.
Hardee hasn’t had a chance to have all of his players together for summer workouts because several are involved with club teams. The Rebels will begin preseason practice Aug. 2.
“We’ve had the opportunity to have a couple of practices and play dates, but we haven’t had everybody practice together,” he said. “I’m looking forward to Aug. 2 when we can get back together.”
The Rebels will open the season Aug. 19 at Chelsea. They will compete in Class 7A, Area 6, which includes Spain Park, Hewitt-Trussville and Gadsden City. Hoover and Thompson are lurking in Area 5.
Hardee believes the Rebels have what it takes to win the school’s first volleyball state championship.
“I’m going to shoot for the stars,” he said. “I believe we can win a state championship, but the volleyball in our area is so good. Spain Park is the voting favorite to start the season and Hoover and Thompson are very good. Hoover is coming off a state championship and have one of the top players around, and Thompson has a very talented team.
“It’s a heck of a time for it to be my first year, but I like our group. We’ve got a good mixture of senior leadership and athleticism. If we can stay healthy, I believe we can compete with anybody in the state.”