Notre Dame High School's varsity volleyball program has been working hard since June to make this season its most memorable in years.
The Lady Fighting Irish believe the talent is there to push for the TSSAA Division II-A championship after going 27-11 overall and reaching the state quarterfinals last fall. Only one starter from that team was lost to graduation, and passing and serving are expected strengths for the Irish.
"I am confident we are better at every position than we were last year, but the challenge for us will be growing into the team we are going to be, because we haven't scrimmaged. No one has scrimmaged," said Dan Clotfelter, whose fourth season as Notre Dame's head coach is already memorable because of having to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the offseason for TSSAA teams.
"We have built towards this moment for the last several years," Clotfelter added. "They want to have their moment. I think every senior in Hamilton County wants to have that chance."
Volleyball is not considered a contact sport, so team practices have been going in full swing since July. However, due to the pandemic, there will be changes from usual routines and sacrifices will have to be made.
Notre Dame's schedule was altered to eliminate tournaments requiring travel outside of the area, including one in Sevierville. Players are also being encouraged to limit their exposure to big crowds because of the risk of not only becoming infected with the coronavirus but spreading it to the team.
The Lady Irish are led by star outside hitter McKenna Brown, who finished third in the area last year in kills, averaging almost 14 per match. Also back is powerful middle blocker Regan Wolf, who was the MVP of Notre Dame's district tournament in 2019, and Clotfelter believes libero Gwen Jimenez and setter Mary Filauer are two of the area's best at what they do.
"We have a good chance to find out who we are as a team and where we are at right away," Clotfelter said. "We open with Hixson at home (on Tuesday) and then go play at GPS (on Thursday) and Baylor (on Friday). Our girls have put in the individual work and are ready to play against someone other than ourselves. It's been a different summer, but we are ready to go and are excited."
Notre Dame, which made its lone appearance in a TSSAA state final when it won a Class A/AA title in 2006, is one of several local programs with notable outlooks for the Volunteer State's 2020 season, which begins Monday.
Baylor reached the DII-AA championship match six times in the past decade, winning in 2014 and 2017, and the Lady Red Raiders look like contenders again after totaling 30 victories and reaching the state semifinals last year.
Key returning players include the ultra versatile Elaine Redman, who has committed to Toledo, and Sierra Herndon, Tess Margio and Holland Moss, all of them capable of outstanding offense and defense. Redman is similar to NBA star Luka Doncic in that she can contribute triple-double statistical performances — assists, digs and kills in her case — while making it look easy.
Class AAA's Cleveland is coming off a 38-13 season and a state tournament appearance and expects another strong push, as does Class AA's East Hamilton, which went 34-12 and came within a win of playing for a state title, losing to eventual champion Nolensville.
East Hamilton's Lady Hurricanes, who expect big seasons from Madison Allen and McKenna Hayes, will be under new leadership as former assistant Antonela Suzuki takes over for Kelsey Kelley, who resigned so she could be home with her two young boys.
DII-AA programs Chattanooga Christian School and GPS also have new coaches in Bailey Winel and Brittney Berube, respectively. Ansley Blevins and Chapel Cunningham could have breakout seasons for GPS, while CCS returns one of the area's best hitters in the area, AJ Johnson.
Other key players to watch this season: Baylor — Libby May; Boyd Buchanan — Calla Brady, Cali Sandhoff; Bradley Central — Kelsey Carman, Ashlan Crittenden, Riley Sermons; CCS — Lauren Kay; Cleveland — Joy Douglass, Katie McGinnis; Hixson — Riley Bellamy, Ava Rogers, Jenna Westfall; Lookout Valley — Ansley McBryar; Red Bank — Ashley Ware; Sale Creek — Kaci Billingsley, Allison Smith; Soddy-Daisy — Hope Ingle, Javaria Smith; Walker Valley — Melody McRee; Whitwell — Courtney Zensen.