JEFFERSON is no longer satisfied with merely reaching the state tournament and has upped the ante accordingly.
After a memorable 34-win season last year concluded with a first-round exit, the Dragon volleyball team – which opens Aug. 16 – has scheduled itself a regular season obstacle course of sorts to toughen up for the postseason.
“That’s exactly why we changed the schedule,” said coach Mike Paul, who is 89-56 at Jefferson. “And we’ve tried to do that every year … We’ve tried to make it tougher every year.”
But until this year, space outside the sub-area schedule was very limited. Now, with sub-area teams no longer required to play each opponent twice, Jefferson’s scheduling options opened up considerably.
Jefferson will be tested immediately with matches against Hebron Christian (36-9 last year) and George Walton (30-14 last year) and has picked up out-of-area matches with North Hall (an Elite Eight team in Class AAA in 2010) and West Hall (a Class AAA Sweet 16 team). The Dragons will also play in the talent-loaded Conyers Spikefest and the Georgia Challenge in Woodstock (Jefferson’s pool includes Class AAAAA and Class AAAA schools) to maximize the regular season experience.
“I feel like that is how you get better,” Paul said.
The Dragons – who haven’t lost a sub-area match since 2008 – will also play each team on the other side of the area at least once to provide preparation for the Area 8-AA/A tournament in October.
One of the reasons Jefferson is confident enough to load-up the schedule is a largely talented and battle-tested core group of four seniors – Taylor Cramsey, Amanda Daniel, Cassie Metcalf and Eden Starnes. All four made all-area in 2010.
Three of those seniors (Cramsey, Daniel and Metcalf) have started since their freshmen years, while the other (Starnes) played regular minutes that year. Adding to those core four are senior Savanna Holland, who started in 45 matches last year, and junior Sara Wood.
Paul said this is a rare assemblage of experience for one team.
“We have eight returning lettermen, and I don’t know that there’s another team in our area that can say that,” he said.
Up-and-comers Hannah Murphy and Amanda Burgamy are rising from the junior varsity and should get a lot of playing time.
Paul said Jefferson won’t sneak up on any of its foes this year.
“I think we’re going to get everybody’s best game,” Paul said. “Coaches talk about the bulls-eye being on your back. I know that in our subarea, the bulls-eye’s on our back, and we’re going to get everybody’s best game.”
But as far as the entire area goes, Paul feels that pressure lies with last year’s champion, Athens Academy, even though the Spartans graduated a host of seniors.
“I know Athens Academy graduated everybody; I still think they’re the team to beat,” Paul said.
Jefferson’s roadmap to success this year includes “staying healthy and happy” and not comparing this season’s results to last year’s school-record 34 wins, especially with a much tougher schedule.
“I told them, we don’t get to start the year 34-11 ... We can’t base what we do this year on what we did last year,” Paul said. “The region is different, our schedule is different outside the area. We may or may not win as many games. I don’t know. We may win more or we may win less.”
While surpassing last year’s win total would be nice (and quite challenging), Jefferson’s main objectives are bringing home a banner from the area tournament – meaning they must finish as region champs or runners-up – and finally getting over that first-round hump in the state tournament.
Paul said there’s definitely pressure – given the senior class’s talent and past contributions – to accomplish some of those marks.
“You don’t want them to come into this season and end feeling it was a disappointment,” he said. “So there is a lot of pressure from within. I don’t feel like I have any pressure from the outside, ‘You’ve got to win it all this year coach,’ or anything like that. But there is pressure from within to give them my best. And I know they’re going to give me theirs.”