By Rubin E. Grant
After two weeks of the 2021 high school volleyball season, the Hoover Bucs are still trying to find their identity.
Coach Chris Camper said it might take the entire regular season for the Bucs to determine what kind of team they have.
That was not a problem in 2020, when the Bucs posted a 50-1 record and captured the Class 7A state championship, the first volleyball title in school history.
“That’s the greatest team we have ever put on the court in the history of the program,” Camper said.
Three players from that team are now playing in college – middle hitter Gabrielle Essix at Florida, setter Aly Durban at Samford and outside hitter Sydney Melton at Albany State. Another, Kayla Jemison, is running track at a junior college in Mississippi.
Their departure has left a major void this season.
“We’re young and inexperienced,” Camper said. “We’ve got to figure out who we are. We’ve got talent, but we’re still trying to figure out who is going to get to play and trying to see what our lineup is.”
The Bucs do have dominating 5-foot-9 senior outside hitter Rya McKinnon returning. She was the 2020 Alabama Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year and the Over The Mountain Journal Player of the Year as a junior after recording 594 kills, 267 digs, a 2.32 passer rating and 50 aces.
“Rya has been here since she was 13,” Camper said. “She was on the varsity as an eighth grader. For the first month and half, she was 13 because she didn’t turn 14 until October. She is a relentless competitor who never takes a point off. She is a once-in-a-lifetime player.”
McKinnon’s talent has always been obvious, but she has become the Bucs’ unquestioned on-court leader.
“What I see now is a vocal leader, someone who has grown up and matured,” Camper said. “She steps up her game when we need her to and she’s learning new ways of leading instead of just being the best player.”
McKinnon is headed to Howard University in Washington, D.C., next year after initially committing to Louisville. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some seniors at Louisville were granted another year of eligibility, leaving McKinnon without a scholarship guaranteed. So, she looked elsewhere before settling on Howard, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“She had several schools who wanted her,” Camper said. “She went to visit Howard and fell in love with the school. She’s excited about it. Her dad coaches (football) at an HBCU school (Miles).
“They have a good volleyball program. They can go toe-to-toe with top 25 schools. They have tremendous talent.”
McKinnon is off to a strong senior season for the Bucs, recording 144 kills and more than 50 digs in the team’s first nine matches. Last week, she had 24 kills and 10 digs in a 3-1 victory (25-19, 15-25, 25-23, 25-19) against Mountain Brook and 23 kills in a 3-1 loss (20-25, 25-20, 17-25, 18-25) at Spain Park.
The Bucs had posted a 9-3 record before heading to Orlando for the Nike Tournament of Champions last weekend.
Outside of McKinnon, the only returning player who played in some rotations in 2020 is junior libero Peyton David. Camper is searching for other players to step up as contributors.
“At this point, we don’t know what we have,” he said. “I don’t know who is going to step up. We have some juniors and a senior outside hitter and a senior setter, but they’ve never played.”
Kendal Thornton is the senior outside hitter and Baxley Downs is the senior setter.
Among the juniors who have been productive in the early going are defensive specialist Bella Guenster, middle hitter Alanah Pooler, middle hitter Reese Hawks and defensive specialist Maggie Harris. Pooler transferred from Spain Park and Hawks transferred from Hokes Bluff.
“Our team is deep and talented but just inexperienced,” Camper reiterated. “They’re a fun group to coach and they have a lot of room for improvement. We’re going to take our lumps right now, but I think we’ll be a better team in October.”