The roller-coaster ride that has been East Hamilton's volleyball season already has gone through its biggest dip. Or at least the Lady Hurricanes think so.
Judging by their play recently, they could be right. They'll get the chance to prove it this week.
East Hamilton (33-18) is one of five area teams in the TSSAA state tournament running Wednesday through Friday in Murfreesboro. Its opening match is at noon EDT against Dyersburg (44-9) at Blackman High, the site of first-day action for Class AA teams.
The winner of the Lady Hurricanes' first match plays again Wednesday against the winner between Christian Academy of Knoxville and Page at about 5 p.m. The losers of those matches play at about 7.
East Hamilton is in its fourth year as a program and was a state-tournament team for the first time last season. The Lady 'Canes were 23-8 this season and undefeated in District 6 when things took a downward turn.
They lost five consecutive matches with district losses to Red Bank and Central included, leaving them as the No. 3-seeded team in the district tournament. Then after a district victory over East Ridge, East Hamilton traveled to the Middle Tennessee Classic and lost its first three matches.
"There was just a bunch of drama going on, and that brought everybody down," freshman setter, hitter and coach's daughter Emma Lenoir said.
Coach Kristy Lenoir said at that point she gathered her troops. She reminded them of all the work they'd put in, including the running and the squats. She challenged them to search within themselves and decide if they were going to regroup or give up.
"The way I see it, things could've gone one of two ways," Coach Lenoir said. "There really wasn't any middle ground. Since that point we've seemed to steadily be moving in the right direction."
Seniors Kennedy Fager, Emily Clemmons and Morgan Phillips were particularly frustrated with the stretch that left the Lady 'Canes 24-16. Fager, a 5-foot-11 right-side hitter, said they let the others know the path they were on was not the way they wanted to go out.
"When you hit rock bottom," Fager said, "there's nothing to do but escalate."
East Hamilton has now won nine of its last 11 matches, including a Region 3 championship victory over district champion Red Bank, which also earned its way back into the state-tournament field.
Five starters are back this year for East Hamilton, but among the graduation losses off last year's team was all-state libero Katie Loftin. Also, hitter Allison Walden tore an ACL in club season and missed this year, her senior season.
Emma Lenoir was a starter as an eighth-grader but said it took about halfway through last season before she felt comfortable on the court. Playing in front of large crowds made her nervous, but she said she's gotten past that.
Fager said she feels the team is armed well enough with what they have. She did say there is one issue that still seems to persist.
"We start out well in the first game, then we tend to relax and the other team steps up their game," Fager said.
The Lady 'Canes have proven they can fix problems in season. Maybe they can work that one out, too.
Coach Lenoir just wants to see the up-and-down track level out a bit.
"My greatest hope is that we are focused and play consistently," she said. "That means controlling the ball on our side. If we do that, we've got great potential to do well."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653.
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.