District 5-AAA volleyball teams went through a topsy-turvy first half of the regular season, followed by a flippity-floppity second half. Now that the district tournament is here, it's time they get down to the nitty-gritty.
Not many districts ended up with regular-season tri-champions. Not many districts have No. 1-seeded teams in their tournaments with three league losses. This district has both.
Tournament action gets under way Monday, the beginning of state playoffs for TSSAA teams. District finalists move on to region to play. Postseason also begins this week for GHSA teams.
Graduation took a toll throughout District 5-AAA, and coming in there was no clear-cut favorite. Ooltewah, Bradley Central and Soddy-Daisy each finished the district regular season 9-3.
The teams went 2-2 against each other, each winning a total of eight sets. With the next tiebreaking criteria being losses in those matches, third-seeded Soddy-Daisy wound up with nine, second-seeded Bradley Central ended up with eight and top-seeded Ooltewah had seven.
The Lady Owls have the tournament's only bye, then get the winner between fifth-seeded Walker Valley and fourth-seeded Cleveland. One of their losses was to Walker Valley.
"In our district it's going to be whoever is playing their very best," Walker Valley coach Judy Pruett said. "It can be pretty much anybody. I just hope it's us. I hope we can peak at the right time."
Said Cleveland coach Trish Flowers: "It's anybody's season. It's whoever shows up. It's a game of mistakes. Whichever team makes the fewest is who's going to come out on top."
Ooltewah, 25-9 before competing this weekend in Blackman's Middle Tennessee Classic, is led by seniors Leondra Barrett, Kelsey Chernak, Karly Newman and Izabella Zdunek. The Lady Owls started their district season 1-2.
"We lost a lot of key players last year," said Chernak, the setter. "The people that came in to take their spots are all great players. We just kind of started off slow. Once we started getting used to each other, we started playing together."
Bradley Central (27-12) is led by 6-foot-2 junior net players Brooke Copeland and Rebecca Reuter and was the last to lose its first district match. It didn't help down the stretch that senior setter Kayla Arp missed some time with a foot injury suffered in a car accident, although she was able to return and play last Thursday.
Soddy-Daisy (31-18) and Cleveland (7-5 in the district, 19-18 overall before the Middle Tennessee Classic) had better second halves to their seasons. Lady Trojans coach Lorri Johnson said four sophomores had to play primary roles this year and as the season progressed they improved, particularly setter Chloe Mitchell.
"She had no time or experience in club ball or at the varsity level," Johnson said. "It took until about midseason for her to catch on, and now she's playing much better. More recently she's figured out she can play defense as well, which is kind of important."
Lady Raiders junior hitter Qetuwrah Abdullah-Muhammad was unable to play this year until Sept. 11. Her return has made a difference, although she continues to deal with her shoulder injury.
"We still have to give her breaks," Flowers said of Abdullah-Muhammad, who did not make the tournament trip this weekend. "When she came back our lineup just fell into place. We already had chemistry. Then we just started jelling."
Along with its victory over the top-seeded team, Walker Valley (15-22, 5-7) had a loss against sixth-seeded Rhea County (8-16, 3-9).
"We've just got to put the ball down," Walker Valley senior libero Taylor Pruett said. "We have to have confidence we can finish out games, and we've got to put the ball down. That's our main thing."
McMinn County (9-13, 0-12) completes the field.
"I think everybody would describe their team as inconsistent," Johnson said. "Even McMinn played much better volleyball than they have in the past. It comes down to who's going to be able to play under pressure."
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.