For most of the previous eight seasons Ed Clendenen has served as Gordon Lee’s volleyball coach, his Lady Trojans were one of the top dogs in Area 6-AA/A.
But things changed a little last season, the first in a new-look Area 4-A. Gordon Lee went from being in a public school-heavy area to being the lone public school in a very good all private school league, one that includes Class A state runner-up Walker.
The 2012 Lady Trojans still finished a very respectable third in the area tournament, adding on to their list of state tournament appearances. But five important members of last season’s squad have now graduated, adding to the Lady Trojans’ list in that category as well.
In the last five seasons, Gordon Lee has graduated 23 seniors off its volleyball team. Most have been key contributors and many have been All-Area performers.
“We’ve done a really good job of getting the next group ready when it became their turn to play, and now it’s this group’s turn,” Clendenen said. “The difference this year being we don’t have as many upperclassmen. The majority of this team will be sophomores and freshmen.”
The longtime coach says that with so many younger players, his team is still in the process of finding an identity as the season approaches.
“From what I have seen so far, we have a lot of young talent and ability,” he said. “But we’re still finding our roles, trying to see who are going to be our leaders, that sort of thing. For us to be successful, we’re going to have to put individual stuff aside. It has to be a team thing.
“Being so young, we’re going to be a little erratic at times, so we’ll have pick each other up and pat each other on the back when it’s needed, and we can’t get too high or too low. We have to stay a lot more even-keeled.”
With experience at a premium, this year’s senior class will have to take on an even bigger role as team leaders.
Middle hitter Caroline Thomas became one of the area’s better players last year, while libero Kayla Motley will have an even bigger role on this year’s squad.
“Caroline will have to be a big offensive force for us again this year,” Clendenen explained. “She’s very capable and she’s trying to be more of a team leader, which is good to see. Kayla is also a big key for us and she’s been playing really well. She has to be a great server returner for us, because that’s where we need her the most, that and passing the ball. She’s has to be big for us defensively.”
As for the juniors, setter Kailtin McConnell continues to improves, as does middle hitter Anna Pettigrew. Pettigrew, the 2012 Class A public school state high jump champion, shined in limited varsity action as a sophomore. The final two juniors, setter Morgan Derryberry and back-up libero Alayna Culp, are also being counted on to be contributors this season.
Among the sophomores, Clendenen said outside hitter Juliana Spradlin, who came on near the end of last season, is stepping up “beyond her years” as a team leader. She’ll be joined on the front row by outside hitter Austin Ellis, one of team’s most consistent servers, and middle hitter Payton Byrd, who gives the team height on the front row.
The final two sophomores, Shelby Thompson and Hannah Hartline, are in the mix for playing time at a setter position.
Clendenen also has high hopes for a large, hard-working group of freshmen that includes hitters Hannah Lee, Grace Sims, Emma Boles, Alexis Riddle, and Katelyn Bickett, setter Sidney Pierce, and defensive specialist Sky Adkins.
“I’m very proud of the younger kids for how hard they are working,” Clendenen. “They know they have a chance to play this season, they just have to learn to be more hard-nosed, especially in this region.”
Janet O’Neal also returns to the bench as an assistant coach. O’Neal filled in admirably last year during Clendenen’s medical-related absence.
The team third in an FCA camp tournament over the summer, and while Clendenen was buoyed by the performance, he says there is still plenty his team must do to get better.
“We have to get better in all facets of the game,” he added. “We’re showing signs of it on offense and defense and we go through streaks where we serve it really well, but we still have times when we don’t pass it very well, we can’t get into our offense, things like that.
“Our biggest thing right now is errors. We have to make other teams earn their points instead of giving a bunch of them away.”
Clendenen says Walker is still the area favorite until proven otherwise, but he believes his team has the potential to be in the mix for a post-season berth.
“I think we can compete in our region,” he said. “Everyone seems to have suffered some pretty big graduation losses. Walker is still probably the favorite, but the rest is pretty balanced.
"I sure would like to play in a state tournament game at home again. It’s a little more fun.”