High School Volleyball Season Underway- A Look At Local Teams
MADISON- Two veterans, two rookies. That’s what makes up the local head coaching positions of the four local high school volleyball programs as the 2023 season is underway.
Nikki Knott is in her fifth season at Madison Academy while Jenny Jarrett begins her second season as head coach at Bob Jones. These two make up the veterans of the action on the volleyball courts while first-year coaches at James Clemens, Genesis Taylor, and Sparkman, Austin Craddock, come into their campaigns as rookies in their respective positions.
The Lady Patriots return all-but-one of their starters from last year’s squad that came within an eyelash of a Class 7A state title losing to McGill-Toolen 3-1 in the championship match and completing the campaign with a superb 51-7 record. The 2023 roster is made up of five seniors, seven juniors and two sophomores definitely has the goal of making another run at a state title as the school has won two championships coming in 2008 and 2013.
“We have focused on staying in the moment and continuing to work to not take anything for granted as we got to come in as an underdog last year, but this year, we realize everyone will be focusing on exposing our weaknesses, so we don’t want to become complacent,” said Jarrett. “Our five seniors have been stepping up in their leadership roles as we do have great team chemistry and the girls have a lot of fun together.”
The seniors include Eliza Tyrrell (OH, 5-9, Sr.), Abby Harbin (DS, 5-5, Sr.), Rachel Mecklenburg (OPP/S, 5-9, Sr.), Abby Preus (OPP, MH, 5-9, Sr.) and Meg Jarrett (L, 5-8, Sr.). Jarret is the daughter of Coach Jarrett and is a UAB commit. Last year she posted 67 aces, 644 digs and 118 assists from her position as libero. Mecklenburg, who committed to Wallace State, posted 75 assists, 173 digs, 51 blocks, 74 aces and 374 kills. Tyrrell from her middle position had 293 kills, 31 aces, 80 blocks and 96 digs a season ago.
Additional outstanding play from a year ago include juniors Kennedy Vaughn (OH, 5-11, Jr.) who posted 316 digs, 57 blocks, 61 aces and 637 kills as a sophomore, and Riley Lovell (S, 5-6, Jr.) who completed the season with 76 kills, 56 aces, 39 blocks, 444 digs and 143 assists.
Jarrett is also looking forward two new arrivals via moves into the Bob Jones district. Kendall Buckley (OFF/OH, 6-0, So.) is from Arizona and Ashley Fitzgibbons (DS, 5-6, Jr.) arrived from Utah and is a defensive specialist.
Opening the season against two arch-rivals in Huntsville and Grissom is a long tradition and one Jarrett said is a very competitive way to open the season. She added, “It feels as if we have been practicing for a long time, so we’re ready to play. We are excited to get the season started.”
The Jets open their newest season with a new coach in Genesis Taylor, a former player herself at James Clemens graduating in 2018. She took over the head coach position this summer after the exit of Shelby-Grace Mays. The Jets are eager to overcome a disappointing 2022 season where they posted a mere 13-30 record.
The newest roster includes five seniors in Addison Delaney, Kayden Gray, Pari Malhotra, Sydney Plant and Kylie Farmer. Two of the key players in jump-starting the squad in 2023 are Gray and junior Jasmine Brantley, both of whom are on-court leaders. “They are both very talented, extremely competitive and have great work ethic. They are constantly always trying to get extra reps on the court and are my most consistent hitters and are all-round players,” said Taylor, who works fulltime as a registered nurse in the medical ICU unit at Huntsville Hospital and is working her schedule around volleyball.
Taylor has coached several club teams around the area and feels confident she has the knowhow and patience to take on the responsibilities as head coach. “I love the James Clemens spirit and I believe that brings out the best in the players,” added Taylor, 22. “I expect and demand a lot of my players and we have a lot of fun doing those things. We are a strong team and definitely a good group of girls who are very scrappy on the court.”
The Lady Senators lost to St. Paul’s 3-0 in the quarterfinals of the State Tournament a year ago and completing season with a 45-13 record under coach Chandler Phillips. This summer, Phillips exited the program and Sparkman hired Austin Craddock to take over the duties as head coach. With seven players returning from last year’s highly competitive team, Craddock knows he has a solid base for a good team and is looking towards formulating an excellent return to the court for the Senators.
“Our team dynamics were a little chaotic this summer with the multiple changing of the coaching staff, but I’m very excited to be here and create a winning team and program,” said Craddock, who has had extensive coaching experience in the club level, as well as, three years as an assistant at UAH. “We’ve slowly been coming together more and more, and I’m excited to see what we accomplish this season.”
Craddock has assessed his team and indicated two players are currently head and shoulders above the rest going into the 2023 campaign. Jala Blackwell (MB, 6-0, Sr.) has been a huge leader during the pre-season workouts. Craddock added, “She helps keep us focused and has been crushing it in skills work. She will be a huge advantage for our team.” Another senior, Allahna Lucas (Libero, 5-8, Sr.), has been a big force for the Senators. “She has been creating a lot of energy for us and should help our team to be successful. She provides a lot of positive energy for the team.”
The Lady Mustangs are young with head coach Nikki Knott having just four seniors among her 12-player roster for 2023, but experience is not an issue as seven players return from a season ago where Madison Academy was 30-22 overall and lost to Alexandria Valley 3-1 in the first round of the Super Regional. That playing time along with play in various club teams during the off-season enable the squad to be a threat whenever it hits the court.
“Our seniors really bring a variety of experience and energy to our team as all of our players are hard workers and want to improve their skills and boost the team,” said Knott, in her fifth season as MA’s head coach.
For the third consecutive year, Molly Byrne (Setter, 5-8, Sr.) returns as starting setter and team Co-Captain. She posted 890 assists, 38 aces and s04 digs last season. “She brings back experience as a veteran setter and has grit and determination and has really taken in our younger players as an encourager,” said Knott of her longtime starter. Gabby Ghee (RS, 5-9, Sr.) returns as a RS with 144 kills and 31 blocks to her credit last year. Knott said Ghee had some hard hits and can be a weapon on the right side. Hannah Wallis (DS,5-5, Sr.) scored 90 digs and 11 aces in last year’s campaign, but Knott said, “Hannah has improved her serve receive skills and is dependable on the court when we need a dig or good pass.”
Senior Ryan McBride (RS, 5-10, Sr.), new to the team this season, can put up a wall on the block and brings energy and a spark to this year’s team. Sydney Privett (MB, 5-8, Jr.) returns as middle blocker where last year she had 215 Kills, 38 aces and 23 blocks. Knott said of her, “She brings back experience on the court as she has improved her blocking and is a go-to player on the floor. She is a hard worker and team player.” Isabelle Sutton (OH, 5-9, So.) one of two sophomores on the team played well last season carving out 202 kills, 52 aces and 172 digs. “She has improved her game in the off-season as a powerful threat and has come back strong as an OH with lots of energy on the court. Two more juniors, Kayla Arnold (OH/R, 5-8, Jr.), who had 59 kills and 16 blocks, and Maile Cooper (S/DS, 5-7, Jr.) plays a dual role as setter and DS. Last season she played at Libero and had 73 aces, 74 assists and 502 digs.
Knott has also been impressed with eight grader Mary Ceil McClung (OH, 5-10, 8) who is an outside hitter. She has great work ethic, and although she is young, she is a vocal leader on the court.
“We have a tough schedule this season and we know this will challenge us and allow us to put in work to improve as the season progresses to prep for area, super regionals, and a trip back to the State Tournament for the first time in a few years,” said Knott, whose daughter, Olivia, is one three assistant coaches along with Nicky Faught and Alyssa Walker.