The Augusta Preparatory Day School Volleyball team is playing for more than pride this season.
Augusta Prep's Stevie Odom lunges after the ball as teammate Lauren Gibbs offers backup in their match against Heathwood Hall.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
For the first time since Prep joined the Georgia Independent Schools Association in 1993, the Lady Cavaliers have an opportunity to play for a state championship in volleyball.
Girls volleyball is now a sanctioned sport in the GISA. During previous seasons, Augusta Prep played a nonregion schedule, because there were no official regions, and thus no state tournament brackets, in the GISA.
The Lady Cavs have sported strong volleyball teams for several years, but with the chance to earn a state title, Coach Rich Bland says his team will have extra incentive to work hard in practice and to turn it up a notch in matches.
"At the beginning of every football season, if they told the NFL players there's no Super Bowl, yeah, they'd go out and play," Bland said. "But when you have that ring or that banner hanging in front of you it gives a team a lot more focus than they would have had otherwise."
Augusta Prep kept its focus in a match against Heathwood Hall Episcopal School Wednesday at Boardman Gymnasium. After losing the first game 23-25, the Lady Cavaliers came back with 25-20, 25-4 and 25-22 wins to take the best-of-five match.
With the victory, Prep improved its record to 3-1. Still, the solid start is just another step toward the ultimate goal.
"Knowing we have a state title to play for, our energy level, even in the beginning, was greater than it has been in the past," senior setter Stevie Odom said. "This year I don't think our energy level is going to die out at all. It's going to grow."
The GISA has nine volleyball teams split into East and West divisions. The top eight teams advance to the state tournament, which will be played Oct. 15 and 17 at Dominion Christian in Marietta.
Augusta Prep is in the East, and already has whipped two region opponents this season, so the Lady Cavaliers appear to be a lock for the top eight.
The backbone of the team is its six seniors - co-captains Odom and Stephanie Minor, Lauren Gibbs, Coles Hull, Natalie Hamilton and Caitlin Burley have been playing together since middle school.
"I think having six seniors, there's a sense of unity," Bland said. "If we're going to win a state title, it's riding on the seniors."
Sophomores Katelyn Gibbs, Deanna Reid and Rachael Hamilton also are accomplished players. They helped spark the rally Wednesday against Heathwood, and are an integral part of Prep's team chemistry.
"Our play has been really good so far. We work really well together," Minor said. "The best part is we're all best friends. We've known each other for so long, that's going to help."
Bland also brings something to the table. The first-year coach was a member of two NCAA championship teams at UCLA.
"He's really shown us a whole new game, in a way," Odom said of Bland.
And, with a championship at stake, volleyball is a whole new game for Augusta Prep.
"The main thing, a very important thing, is we have a title to shoot for. If nothing else, that's something that can galvanize a team," Bland said. "That, combined with having six seniors, I think is a good opportunity to bring the first GISA volleyball title to Prep."
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