Pee Dee Juniors' Sarah Brigman spikes over Lowcountry Volleyball Club's Deveny Schembra during Saturday's friendship tournament hosted by the Augusta Junior Olympic Volleyball Club at Patriots Park.
Photo by Chris Thelen
These seeds of success are sown in winter, sprout through the spring, and reap further rewards in the fall.
The secret isn't in the soil. It's in the crop of athletes being groomed by the Augusta Junior Olympic Volleyball Club.
"We probably have 75 percent of our varsity and junior varsity playing club ball," said Greenbrier High School volleyball coach Debbie Born, whose team has reached elite level in Georgia, thanks in part to the benefits of young prep players hitting the court with the Augusta Juniors.
"The more they touch the ball, the better they're going to be," Born said. "Any competitive high school team in the state has a majority of their players in Junior Olympic programs in the off-season."
The Augusta Junior Olympic Volleyball Club is part of a select volleyball program incorporating clubs from South Carolina and parts of Georgia. The club's teams compete in the Palmetto Volleyball Region.
The club kicked off its third season by hosting a Friendship Tournament last Saturday at Patriots Park Gym. Twenty teams competed in the pre-season scrimmage to get ready for this weekend, when actual tournament play begins. The tournaments continue through April.
"It's nice to watch them play and see the changes they've made," said Born, who was on hand last weekend at Patriots Park. "The gym was pretty full. I expect some good things to come out of this. Club volleyball is very competitive."
In the fall, many members of the Augusta Juniors play high-school volleyball for Evans, Greenbrier, Augusta Prep, Lakeside, Westside, Harlem, Richmond Academy, and North Augusta. Some compete for area middle schools that actually have teams. Columbia County's middle schools currently do not have volleyball teams.
"I hope that happens, but that's up to the middle-school athletic directors," Born said. "That would be the next step for volleyball locally, since we've now started a Junior Olympic program."
The club accepts players from ages 13-18, with teams broken down into age brackets and skill levels. The 15-18 age group competed in the Friendship Tournament, while the younger players competed last weekend at Augusta Preparatory Day School.
"We start off putting girls on teams by age, but if a player has better skills, we'll move her up to a higher age bracket," said Ron Cupp, overall head coach of the Augusta Juniors and a board member.
Augusta and Aiken volleyball teams compete during Saturday's friendship tournament hosted by the Augusta Junior Olympic Volleyball Club at Patriots Park.
Photo by Chris Thelen
Matches consist of three games. The first two games are played to 21 and the last is played to 15, where the winner must win by two points.
Sunni Bennett, a junior at Greenbrier, has been playing select volleyball since the 7th grade. After graduation, she hopes to play for Georgia Southern University. Competing for the Augusta Juniors could showcase her skills to college coaches looking for talent.
"A lot of recruiters come to these tournaments, because the competition is really tough at this level," Bennett said. "In high school, the region is pretty small. The competition in club ball is much better and I learn a lot more. I learn something new every year."
Rachael Hamilton, a junior at Augusta Prep, is in her third year playing for Augusta Juniors, and the middle hitter says club ball is where the court action really heats up.
"Playing in high school is almost like a warm-up for playing for the club," she said. "The girls playing in clubs are really good. It's much more competitive."
During regular-season events, the Augusta Junior teams compete in a first round of matches, and are then separated into Gold, Silver and Bronze brackets. Then they compete for titles in those brackets. At the end of the season the club with the most wins in those brackets for their region is the champion and may possibly have a shot at going to the Junior Olympic finals.
Augusta Juniors qualified for finals last year, but couldn't afford to go.
The experience gained on the court, though, is priceless.
"We resurrected this club out of the ashes of an old one," said Ron Cupp. "It was something we felt that needed doing, because there was nothing else in the area."
Rob Bennett, another board member and Sunni's father, said Georgia teams are far behind their northern neighbor.
"South Carolina has been holding select volleyball programs for a long time," he said. "Georgia is only just now catching up. You'll see a lot of teams in our region where the girls have been playing together since they were 13 years old. They know what their teammate is going to do before she does it. We don't have that yet."
Competing in last Saturday's tournament were teams from Hartsville, Hilton Head, Aiken, Augusta and North Augusta.
Elaine Cupp, another board member and club director, said she believes area public middle schools will soon be fielding volleyball teams.
"If they do, we'll have a lot of girls that are ready to play," she said. "We have a pretty strong group of 13-year-olds that would do well on that level."
For information about the Augusta Juniors program, call the Cupps at 279-2215 or Rob Bennett at 855-2712.
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