1. Brooke Copeland, Bradley Central, senior: She helped the Bearettes reach a Class AAA state sectional last season, leading them with 502 kills and 303 digs.
2. Kristi Vaughn, Sonoraville, senior: With 495 assists, 427 digs, 200 kills and 60 aces, she sparked her team to a sixth-place finish in the Georgia Class AAA state tournament last year.
3. Kerri Whittaker, Silverdale Baptist Academy, senior: The Lady Seahawks' libero had 612 digs and 89 aces last season for the District 5-A regular-season co-champions.
1. Sonoraville: The Lady Phoenix return not only the Georgia Area 4-AAA MVP in Vaughn, but fellow senior Carrie Cheeks gives them a big presence at the net.
2. Boyd-Buchanan: The Lady Buccaneers return much of the talent from a balanced team that finished second in the Class A state tournament last season.
3. Bradley Central: The Bearettes need a successor for graduated setter Kayla Arp, but their front line is imposing with Copeland and classmate Rebecca Reuter.
In four years East Hamilton worked its way into becoming one of the most competitive Class AA high school volleyball programs in the Chattanooga area, if not the state.
The Lady Hurricanes now have another project, but this time they're not looking to spend four years on it. They're thinking more like four months - from July, when practice started, through October, when the state tournament is held.
But if in 2013 the Lady 'Canes end up competing in the state tournament like they did each of the last two seasons, they'll be doing so in Class AAA. And they'll have to navigate their way through rugged District 5, a league that was so difficult to win a year ago it ended up with a three-way tie at the top of the regular-season standings.
Volleyball season begins this week for area GHSA teams. The TSSAA season starts a week from Monday, which is when East Hamilton opens its season at Class A Silverdale Baptist Academy. The next day it hosts one of its new league opponents, Bradley Central, which was one of last year's regular-season tri-champions.
"You're going to have to come ready every night," East Hamilton coach Kristy Lenoir said. "We know Ooltewah is going to be very strong. We know Bradley Central is going to be strong. They came within one game of playing in the state tournament last year. We played Walker Valley in a couple of preseason scrimmages, and they were very tight ballgames. I expect we're going to see a lot of high-level volleyball."
The Lady 'Canes are entering their fifth year as a program and the last two seasons battled longtime power Red Bank for supremacy in District 6-AA. They likely would've been the district favorite had they remained there.
"In the past when people would say East Hamilton volleyball it was, 'OK, whatever,'" senior setter Sydney Harris said. "As the years have gone by, we've become a team to beat. I still think there are some doubters who think we're not going to do well because we're moving up, but I think we'll surprise some people."
Briley Considine is another senior who knows how far the program has come.
"I think it's really good for us," Considine said of the move up. "I think there are people doubting us because we're coming from a lower division. We are going to have to prove ourselves, but we've worked so hard, I believe we will."
East Hamilton returns one of the area's top all-around players in sophomore Emma Lenoir, the coach's daughter. She was a second-team selection on last year's Times Free Press Best of Preps team, as was teammate Kylie Scruggs. However, Scruggs, a junior, has moved to the Nashville area and now plays at Goodpasture.
"That was hard for us at first," Considine said of the loss of Scruggs. "She was a big part of the team. But it's not all about one person. It just means everybody has to step up their game. The back row, the front row, our whole game has to change."
On the subject of change, Considine is being moved from middle to outside hitter this year. It's a move she's embracing because she feels she'll have a more expanded role.
Meredith Stott, Samantha Headrick and Miranda Roberson are juniors expected to be in the rotation up front. Classmate Kris Joo steps into the libero role.
Senior Brenna Shaw will add some depth around the net, and there are two newcomers to the team. Freshman Somer Batten is expected to contribute right away, and the other is sophomore defensive specialist Hannah Dattilo.
"I think everybody has to understand what their role is and play up to that," Coach Lenoir said. "People are going to have to do their jobs. Whoever is supposed to be the loudest, be the loudest. Whoever is supposed to end the point, end the point. Whoever is supposed to get some aces, serve well and do that. It's a team sport.
"I have high hopes. I'd be crazy to say anything other. Our goal is to win ballgames. I know they're working hard in practice every day. They're putting themselves where they can be in position to be successful."
East Hamilton is hoping to avoid a swoon similar to the one it had late in last year's regular season. Considine said a players-only meeting enabled them to air out some issues at the time and helped them regroup before postseason.
Coach Lenoir said she was proud that last year's team was able to make a turnaround, but Harris said she doesn't foresee anything similar given the team chemistry this year. She sees only good things on the horizon, regardless of others' expectations for the Lady 'Canes, or lack of them.
"I expect us to be at state again this year," Harris said. "I think we can make it happen. We still have a lot of improving to do, but I think we can."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.