Augusta Prep's Katelyn Gibbs sets up the ball in front of Lisa Higgins during a volleyball game against George Walton Academy in Evans.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Rich Bland hopes that the third time's the charm.
The Augusta Prep volleyball coach has taken his Lady Cavaliers to the state finals two consecutive seasons but the team has come up just short.
Bland's team finished second in 2002 and third last season.
"We have high hopes for this year," Bland said. "Our No. 1 goal is to win a state championship."
The Cavaliers look as though they might be ready to embrace that goal, starting the season 14-1. The only loss was to North Cobb Christian, the two-time defending Georgia Independent Schools Association champion.
Three of the 14 wins have come against South Carolina public schools, a compliment to an independent school that doesn't get the respect of many Georgia High School Association schools.
Part of the reason is because the GHSA prohibits its member schools from competing against GISA schools.
"It's upsetting," Bland says. "I would love to play Greenbrier and coach (Debbie) Born, to see how we stack up. I would like to coach against Sunni Bennett and Emily Joye. Even if we lost big like we did to Aiken last year, we'd still have more fun competing against such a challenge."
Rachael Hamilton goes up for a spike in front of teammate Deanna Reid.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
For now, the Cavaliers can only test themselves against South Carolina schools.
"When we beat a public school, we feel like we show we can play with anybody," said senior captain Mary Hannah Lynn after a win against North Augusta last Wednesday. "Some of these schools have 1,500 students. We have 40 in our senior class. (The Yellow Jackets) probably have 40 that just try out for their team."
Despite having such a small pool to pull from, Augusta Prep has thrived because of the knowledge Bland has brought to the program.
Bland played for the nation's most storied men's volleyball program, UCLA, and coached club volleyball in Los Angeles.
"The biggest adjustment was my expectations," Bland said. "Out in California, volleyball is an established sport. It hasn't been a traditional sport in this area.
"But it has given me an opportunity to teach the game to girls and help them become better players."
The coach says that the dedication of his players has been one of the key components to the Cavaliers' success.
"Academics always come first, but they are more rigorous at Prep than they might be elsewhere," Bland said. "Our girls know this and study and work hard in the classroom. I think that determination shows when they play."
Bland's teaching and a schedule he calls the school's toughest ever has helped prepare his team for a run this season at the state title.
"The girls will definitely be prepared when the playoffs begin," Bland said. "With our seniors and a strong schedule, we will be ready."
Deanna Reid, another senior captain said, "This team has a lot of heart. We have a real shot at winning the title this year."
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