By Tyler Waldrep
While football gets most of the attention in Alabama during the fall, it’s not the only sport that launched with the beginning of school.
Volleyball teams have been in training and have started their season with the same competitive spirit as their helmeted counterparts. In fact, the Over the Mountain area boasts two state champions, along with a slew of up-and-comers just gunning to take them down.
Here’s a rundown of the volleyball programs in the area and their plans for the year:
Mountain Brook: Talk of the Town
The whispers around Mountain Brook’s volleyball program have started.
They suggest that Mountain Brook has already locked up the championship title. Coach Haven O’Quinn said she has heard the talk.
“They just think, we did it once,” O’Quinn said, “Now it’s just supposed to happen.”
Last season, Mountain Brook beat Hoover in the Class 7A state championship game to sec ure the school’s first title in the sport. Now the team will have to defend that title.
O’Quinn said she expects this year’s team to look different despite having nine girls return. She believes this team could be even better than last year’s team.
“I’ve never been more excited about a team,” O’Quinn said.
In a way, this is the end of an era for the program. This is the final season that Sara Carr and Sara Chandler Mitchell will step on the court for Mountain Brook. O’Quinn said those are the first players she has coached all four years of high school.
“I have never coached a player who loves the game as much as she (Carr) has,” O’Quinn said.
Carr’s success has been well documented, but O’Quinn said she thought Mitchell deserved more credit than she’s gotten.
“I think she’s like our silent superstar,” O’Quinn said. “Nine times out of ten she puts the ball exactly where I wanted.”
Despite the returning talent, O’Quinn said she doesn’t want the team to think about repeating last year’s feat.
“We never talk about a state championship,” she said. “We are just talking about reaching our potential.”
John Carroll: Defending the Title
John Carroll’s volleyball team picked up a secret weapon July 8.
The new arrival doesn’t possess game-changing height, a strong serve or even raw athleticism, but the ability to inspire is a powerful thing. Coach Ginny McMillan said her newborn, Jayden, already has found his place on the team.
“The team has decided Jayden is our mascot,” McMillan said.
For the first time in almost two decades, the Cavaliers are the defending state champs.
McMillan, known as Ginny Massa before her recent wedding, was a member of the ’96 championship team. She said most of last year’s team returned.
“The girls and I have already talked about how it’s tougher to come back after a state championship,” McMillan said. “A lot of people already put a lot of pressure on you.”
The presence of John Carroll’s “leader on the court,” Kelsi Hobbs, could be crucial when the going gets tough, but others have to step up, as well.
“M.C. Hart and Morgan Adamson both came on very strong at the end of last year,” McMillan said. “I anticipate them continuing to build on where they were progressing.”
McMillan said her team has circled Sept. 10 on their calendars, when 6A finals opponent Pelham will attempt to pay the Cavaliers back for the championship game, but John Carroll has something to avenge, too.
“Pelham winning our area instead of us was that one missing piece,” she said.
McMillan thinks the girls’ experience in big games will help them become successful.
“Environment makes a huge difference,” she said.
Briarwood Christian: Growing Up Fast
Coach Robbie Wilson is not ready to take a step back.
He had the benefit of coaching a senior-heavy group last year. That experience helped Class 6A Briarwood win its area and region, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.
“(We) came within two points of advancing to the Elite Eight,” Wilson said. “This team is completely different from last year’s team.”
This year, new faces will be asked to step up into the roles those seniors left behind. Wilson said he’s going to have to keep the offensive game plan simple this year.
“We don’t want to put them in a situation where they are making mistakes,” Wilson said.
He said he will expand the offense as the season goes along, but it will develop faster if junior Natalie Crumpler can get involved, despite just coming off of a knee brace.
Senior leadership from Robbin Reese and Monique Burton will be critical, Wilson said. Their intangibles and maturity can keep the team grounded. Those two will not have to shoulder the burden of leadership alone.
Taylor Moore and Sophie Muir-Taylor “contributed a lot last year as freshman,” Wilson said. “They are providing a lot of leadership for us on the court already this year despite their age.”
Wilson said the team is not approaching this season as a lost year. Briarwood might be young, but that doesn’t mean the team lacks talent. He said this team is capable of achieving just as much as last year’s team did, if not more.
“Despite the age, we are not going to go out and make excuses,” Wilson said. “We’ll go into every match with a plan to win.”
Homewood: Back for More
Students weren’t the only ones returning to Homewood High School this year.
Carol Chesnutt, Homewood’s volleyball coach from 2005-2010, decided to come out of retirement when the position opened up on the Class 6A team over the summer. “I’m the new kid on the block,” Chesnutt said, but she is excited to be doing what she loves.
Chesnutt is not the only familiar face returning this year. Homewood’s team is filled with upperclassmen, including six seniors.
“I know those seniors are really wanting to leave their legacy,” Chesnutt said. “I think it should provide stability.”
One area Chesnutt said she was confident about was Homewood’s defense. She said she expects senior Virginia Estes to take charge from the libero position.
“We are usually a strong defensive team,” Chesnutt said. “(It’s) important that she continues to do well and be a strong force on the back row.”
While Estes handles the back end of the court, another senior has the opportunity to lead from the front. Chesnutt said Deja Hester Taylor might end up playing middle or could play outside.
“(She’s) very quick with a powerful swing,” Chesnutt said. “She’ll have the opportunity to make a difference on the front row.”
Chesnutt already has big plans for this team. She said she is placing special emphasis on home games, but she needs everyone on the team to step up. She said the team returns several freshmen who were thrown in the fire last year, and she expects that experience to be beneficial.
“Everybody’s got a big role to play,” Chesnutt said. “We have to take advantage of our opportunities.”
Hoover: Aiming to Flip the Script
Chris Camper watched Mountain Brook, the program he had spent eight years coaching, walk away with the Class 7A volleyball state championship last year, but it wasn’t joy he felt as he left the gym.
This fall Camper begins his fourth season as Hoover’s coach. He said watching his former team win the state title at the expense of his current team was a surreal experience.
Hoover’s volleyball program had never made it to a championship game before last year, but a return trip might be just around the corner. Camper said this team might be better than the one that went last year, but the girls have a long way to go.
“We are not rebuilding. We have five returners that played all the time,” Camper said. “Our bench is pretty good, too.”
Camper said that, for the first time in his tenure at Hoover, he will have a returning setter in Jamie Gregg. Camper said other notable returners include senior Ali Lowe, who Camper praises as one of the state’s top players, and junior Olivia Portera.
“I feel like (Portera) is one of the top two or three libero’s in Alabama,” Camper said.
In addition to those five, Hoover also gets Erin Test back after an ACL tear took her out of the starting lineup. With that much talent returning, it’s easy to imagine Hoover returning to the title game.
Hoover doesn’t want to make the trip back to the title game just to lose to preseason favorite Mountain Brook – again.
“We beat them the first two times we played them last year,” Camper said. “They kicked our tails the last two times.”
If the two teams meet in the postseason, then perhaps Hoover can benefit from last year’s loss and rewrite the script.
Indian Springs: Back to Fundamentals
Indian Springs coach Tiffany Hunter is new, but she already has big plans for the school’s Class 3A volleyball program.
“Coming in brand new, I don’t know what we are facing, but I am a firm believer in, why can’t we win it,” Hunter said. “Those are the types of conversations I’ve had with the girls…it starts now.”
This is Hunter’s first season in charge of a high school team — she has worked as a high school assistant in the past, but most of her coaching experience involves club volleyball.
Hunter said she has not changed her coaching methods. She will focus on developing the girls’ fundamentals — passing and defense are two areas she would like the girls to improve.
“Our defense is great, and defense wins games,” she said. “I want to frustrate the other team.”
Hunter said the defense is going to be a team effort. Senior libero Juli Ann Baker will have a lot of responsibility for the team’s defensive play.
“(Baker’s) a very hard worker and I know that she will get that done for us,” Hunter said.
Three other seniors – Chloe Yeager, Stella Davis and Margot Balliet – return this year. Two years ago, Indian Springs made it to the Elite Eight. Hunter said this senior class is hungry for a return trip.
Returning to the Elite Eight is not going to be easy. A Sept. 10 date with Homewood will be a good test for her team. She said beating a school three classes higher would give her team a lot of confidence.
“I tell the girls we put our shoes on the same way the other girls put their shoes on. There’s no reason we cannot beat anyone that steps on the court with us.”
Oak Mountain: Learning from Every Game
Oak Mountain’s Tim Le has plenty of holes to fill. Five of his team’s players, including three starters, graduated last year.
“The biggest thing that we lose from them is their leadership and experience,” Le said. “I only have two seniors.”
Le said he will depend on both outside hitter Savannah Francis and middle blocker Kristen West to provide leadership and set the tone for the entire team.
Having such a young team provides Le with a chance to preview what he can expect for the next few years. He’s not dwelling on the past or the future. He said he thinks the group is more talented than last year’s team.
“We are very athletic and physical,” he said. “I think this is a special group.”
Oak Mountain doesn’t get the benefit of easing into the season. The Eagles kick off the year on the road against the defending 7A champs, Mountain Brook, on Aug. 27.
Le said Oak Mountain’s must-win games will come against area opponent Thompson this year. His team hung with area opponent and state runner-up Hoover last year and he would like to see this team continue to push the Bucs in games.
Oak Mountain only has to take second place in the area to advance to super regionals, but Le said winning the area would be huge for the team.
“If you finish second in our region then you have to play the winner of the Mountain Brook area,” Le said.
If Oak Mountain is going to dodge an early post-season rematch with the Spartans, then it might have to overcome a slow start. Le said that, as long as the girls can win half of the first 10 games, then he won’t worry too much.
“What they need is experience,” Le said. “We take away and learn something from each match and show improvement in the next match. That’s really what’s most important.”
Spain Park: Shaking Things Up
Coach Kellye Bowen isn’t afraid to make changes.
When the chance to leave 4A Saint James for the more competitive 7A class that Spain Park competes in arose in June, she took it and quickly began to play catch-up as most of the valuable off-season already had passed her by.
“I do feel we got better as the season went along,” Bowen said. “I think they really have bought into the program.”
While some coaches might have been conservative in that situation, Bowen was experimenting. She moved players around until she discovered the position she felt they should play, and those experiments could pay off.
“I think one of their main goals is getting to super regionals and getting to the state tournament,” Bowen said. “If we take care of us, then everything else will fall into place.”
She said consistency will be crucial this year. To limit inconsistencies, Bowen has decided to use one setter, junior Ellie Norton, instead of two.
“Ellie’s really been working hard,” Bowen said. “(She’s) not an emotional player; she’s very level headed.”
Bowen said good play from the outside also will be important to the team’s success, and she is confident the team will get it. Senior outside Jordan DeSantis returns after an ACL injury kept her on the bench last season, and Bowen said she also expects middle Marlee Johnson to move to the outside, where she can make more of a difference for the team.
Bowen said she is excited to see something resembling a finished product take the floor this season.
“Every game is a dogfight with them,” Bowen said. “After last year I think they are out for blood.”
Vestavia Hills: Competitive Drive
Ready or not here they come.
Vestavia Hills volleyball coach, Jordan Singletary, realized her team was special last spring. Singletary didn’t notice this spirit in the girls at tryouts or in her discussions with the team. Instead, the third-year coach came to her realization during a game of hide and seek.
She said she could see a competitive drive in her team and she believes that kind of effort will help the team succeed this year despite the girls having lost roughly twice as many games as they won last year.
“They don’t have to have me pushing them … they push themselves,” Singletary said. “It eats them alive to lose.”
Singletary said she lost six senior starters last year from the Class 7A team. Losing that much experience might temper most coach’s expectations, but Singletary said she is confident that she has girls that can and will step up.
“I’m not worried about who I’m replacing at all,” Singletary said. “I have eight juniors so it just, boom, replaced it.”
She said this year’s team understands her expectations better than previous teams, and one of the players who knows exactly what she expects is setter Manon Burris.
“Manon has been on varsity since she was a freshman,” Singletary said. “She’s one of those kids that will do anything I ask of her 100 percent of the time, no questions.”
Singletary also has a lot of faith in middle Avery Kampwerth. The combined experience of Kampwerth and Burris could help lead the team to a successful season.
A former Rebels player herself, she believes that this team could win the school’s first state title. Last year’s results would suggest that kind of leap is unlikely, but the school appeared in the championship game only two seasons ago.
“I’m very excited about this team,” she said. “I think we have the potential to do wonderful things.”
Shades Mountain: Not Playing Around
One year ago, Shades Mountain volleyball coach Peyton Kirk walked in to meet her team, and she was terrified.
“It was exciting,” Kirk said. “I knew nothing about coaching. I learned a lot within a week or two.”
One change Kirk said she plans on making is increasing the intensity of her practices this year. She said she will not tolerate laziness from her players.
A no-nonsense approach probably will be exactly what Kirk’s 1A program needs. Kirk said she has no seniors on the roster this season after having only one last year. She said that lack of senior leadership makes juniors such as Ruth Weaver even more important to the team.
“She’s wise beyond her years,” she said. “The whole team respects her.”
Kirk, who also works a full-time job, said Weaver serves as a sort-of coach in her absence.
“I don’t get to practice until sometimes 4:00 and they start at 3:30 on the dot,” Kirk said. “By the time I got there she would have them serving and doing other small drills.”
Kirk said sophomore Abby Zigneulle is also providing the team with a good example to follow. She said Zigneulle’s work ethic is what sets her apart.
“In the game she’ll fight to the last point,” Zigneulle said. “She’s probably my hardest worker. She loves getting stronger and she loves pushing herself.”
Kirk said the team has a long way to go, but they can make strides from last year if the girls put in the work.
“I like to challenge them,” Kirk said. “It’s not just about volleyball. It’s about making them who they want to become.”
Altamont: New Beginnings
Altamont welcomes coach Kasi Selfe to its 2A volleyball team this year.
Selfe, who has been coaching club teams and other high school teams for the past nine years, takes the lead of a team that made it to the super regionals in Huntsville and finished the season with a record of 17-7 overall, 3-0 in the area.
Returning starters for the team are junior Lucy Pless, senior Lydia Edwards and senior Caroline Plouff.