The last two years Sale Creek's volleyball season ended with losses to Boyd-Buchanan in Region 3-A semifinals. A lot of teams would've liked to have gotten that far, but apparently this time around for the Lady Panthers, the season ending at that stage again is unacceptable.
"We set things for ourselves too low," said Chelsi Roark, who had 247 kills as an outside hitter last season. "That was our talk last year when our season ended. We needed to set things for ourselves higher."
Roark is one of three seniors making sure Sale Creek's aim is higher heading into the 2011 TSSAA season, which begins Monday. The Lady Panthers play opening day at Hixson at 5:30 p.m.
Sale Creek has more than one reason for optimism coming into the season.
Boyd-Buchanan played in the state final each of the last two seasons, winning the championship in 2009, but the bulk of that talent is now gone. The Lady Bucs finished runner-up last year to Signal Mountain, which in 2010 was one of the Lady Panthers' District 6 opponents.
The Lady Eagles have now moved up to Class AA. Additionally, Sale Creek graduated one off last year's team.
"At a small school you have strong years and lean years," Sale Creek coach Debbie Hill said. "You really have to make the best of it. We feel we've got something to show."
The other Lady Panthers seniors this year are libero Megan Weatherford (324 digs in 2010) and middle hitter Baleigh Bailey, who is recovering from an ACL tear she suffered last basketball season.
"The key for us is team focus instead of individual focus. In that way they're good leaders," Hill said of her seniors. "I've got some juniors who'll play key roles, too."
Foremost among those is Hill's daughter, Erin, who can play anywhere from setter to middle hitter, and her statistics last season bear that out. She totaled 412 assists, 362 kills, 59 blocks, 195 digs and 119 aces. Leading again in assists is her personal goal.
"I love my teammates," Erin said. "I think we work really well together. We're very scrappy. We don't have a lot of size, but we have a lot of heart. We have to be smart and know what we want to do with the ball."
Coach Hill said passing is always a big key.
"If we can get a ball up to us," she said, "we can put it down."
Sam Wilkinson will start along the front line and fellow junior Krissy Hodge will be in the rotation at middle hitter. Sophomores Regan Garrett (outside hitter), Megan Storey (setter) and Brooke Welch (defender) are also expected to get significant playing time.
Coach Hill said she believes the Lady Panthers are ready to "take the next step." That would mean advancing to the region final where they would assure themselves a spot in a state sectional. A victory there would mean a trip to the state tournament.
First these Lady Panthers must get through district play and, in addition to never getting to play for a region title, a district championship is something that's eluded them, but "So what?," they say. Aim high.
They're out to change the fact that Sale Creek has never won a state championship in any sport.
"We know there's district and region to get through, but we're thinking state championship," Roark said. "We expect to come out with a royal blue ring this year."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.