By Rubin E. Grant
Hoover volleyball coach Chris Camper has a problem many coaches would like to have.
Camper has so many talented players that he has to figure out a way to get them court time this fall.
“We have 15 players and it’s the deepest team I’ve been a part of,” Camper said. “We’re athletic, big and strong. We’re a presence on the front and deep on the back row.”
The Class 7A second-ranked Bucs might have the most talented front line in the state. It begins with 6-foot-3 junior Gabrielle Essex, a Florida commit, in the middle and 5-foot-11 sophomore Rya McKinnon on the outside.
Essix recorded 331 kills and 112 blocks as a sophomore.
“For a girl her size, she’s a phenomenal athlete,” Camper said. “She’s explosive. She jumps out of the gym.”
McKinnon tallied 526 kills and 228 digs as a freshman. “She’s a six-rotation player who never comes off the court,” Camper said. “She’s a great passer, hitter, server and defender. She’s very gifted.”
The Bucs’ front line also includes 6-foot senior Laurel Burkhardt on the right side with 6-foot-2 junior Melodie Jones, 6-foot-1 junior Kayla Jemison and 6-foot senior Amelia Johnigan in reserve.
Hoover has only three seniors – Burkhardt, Johnigan and defensive specialist Heather Hancock.
“This will be the youngest team I’ve ever had,” Camper said. “We’ve got a lot of girls who will be a huge part of our team who have not played a full varsity schedule yet.”
Burkhardt doesn’t anticipate the Bucs’ sparsity of seniors being an issue.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure on me to be a leader because I’m a senior,” Burkhardt said. “Everyone on the team can be a leader.”
Camper believes his younger players will gain experience during practices.
“One of the greatest advantages we have is (that) in practice, we’re going up against one of the top teams in the state, whether that’s 7-on-7 or 8-on-8,” Camper said.
Hoover does have to replace setter Amiyah King, who had 1,240 assists and 256 digs last season. King is now a freshman at Tennessee State University.
Junior Aly Durban will take over at setter.
“She comes from a volleyball family,” Camper said. “Her mother was a setter in college at Indiana and now works in the Samford athletic department.
“Aly is a very smart volleyball player. She will be a big factor for us this season.”
McKinnon likes the way the Bucs are coming together as a team.
“With all the skill we have, I think we have great team chemistry,” McKinnon said.
Hoover opens the season Aug. 23-24, hosting the Boddie Tournament. The Bucs will begin tournament play Friday against St. Paul’s at 5 p.m. and Austin at 7 p.m. They will play Huntsville Saturday at 10 a.m.
The following week the Bucs play host to Class 7A No. 4 Bob Jones on Aug. 27 and visit 7A No. 9 Vestavia Hills on Aug. 29.
Hoover has never won a state volleyball title. The Bucs were eliminated by Bob Jones in the semifinals of the 2018 state tournament in a tense five-set match, 21-25, 25-11, 25-16, 17-25, 15-10.
Camper hopes the Bucs can end their title drought this fall, but it will be a challenge.
“I don’t know how we match up with the other top teams,” Camper said. “McGill-Toolen is great and Mountain Brook has a great passing team. We’re different because we’re such a tall team.
“But 7A is 7A. The team that can defend and play ball control will win.”