On a hot Friday afternoon, a group of girls in the Harlem High School gymnasium struggled to construct a wobbly human pyramid.
After barely succeeding, the next task was a numbers game that required a straight line and perfect synchronization. In the first half-hour, the girls were physically and mentally spent.
It wasn't an unexperienced freshman cheerleading squad nor an impromptu pep rally. It was volleyball practice - Mike Hopkins style.
"You can't win a game without teamwork," said Hopkins, who is entering his third season as Harlem's varsity volleyball coach. "You can have the best players in the world, but if they don't know how to play together they're not going to win."
That's why, before the Lady Bulldogs even touched the ball during the second practice of the year, the girls were facing mental challenges and teamwork games that forced them to function as a group.
"That's how I start every year. I do a few games like that to see if I have any leadership or who steps up," Hopkins said.
The approach is unlike any other in the county when it comes to the sport. Then again, so is the volleyball program.
Hopkins said Harlem doesn't have the luxury of year-round players like other public schools in Columbia County do. At Greenbrier High School, initial volleyball tryouts totaled 40 girls this year. Harlem's turnout was barely half that.
"It's hard to build a tradition when it wasn't there to begin with," Hopkins said.
Still, the program has improved in the past two years under Hopkins. Three years ago, the Lady Bulldogs finished the season with a 2-28 record. Since then, they've boasted 20-10 records in consecutive years.
This year, the expectations are higher.
"We've finished fourth (in the region), we've finished third, now we want to at least get second," Hopkins said.
A region realignment has lightened the load for the Lady Bulldogs in regular-season play. Last year, Harlem went 11-2 against teams in this season's new subregion. When the region tournament brings the two subregions together at the end of the season, however, the road to the state playoffs will become much more of a challenge.
"We are playing two private schools in our region tournament - St. Vincent's and South Effingham," Hopkins said. "With the way our region's changed this year, it's going to be harder."
Harlem's season begins Aug. 17 with home matches against Westside and Butler high schools.
Head Coach: Mike Hopkins (third year)
2005 record: 20-10
Player to watch: With nearby Fort Gordon bringing in and taking away players every year, the Lady Bulldogs roster is always changing from year to year. Hopkins said he'll have transfers from Michigan, Arizona, Washington and possibly Germany on this season's team.
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