Pictured above, Gadsden State head volleyball coach Connie Clark (left) has a word with sophomore outside hitter Morgan Newton (center) and sophomore setter Savannah Beck (right) during a recent practice at Beck Field House.
By Chris McCarthy
With her first year under her belt as a junior college volleyball head coach, Connie Clark feels she has a handle on what to expect from both herself and her players during the course of a season.
“I learned some things as a coach that I’d like to do differently from now on,” said Clark, who teaches at Hokes Bluff Middle School. “More wins could have been better, but overall, I thought we did pretty well last season.”
Gadsden State went 17-13 overall and 9-5 in Alabama Community College Conference action.
The Lady Cardinals went 1-2 at the double-elimination ACCC Tournament in October in Hanceville. Gadsden State opened with a victory over Lawson State before falling to Snead State and Southern Union.
“I think the girls from last have matured and really worked hard,” said Clark, who had been an assistant under Angie Sanders for the previous 10 seasons. “They were a little shy last year as freshmen but I’ve got a lot of good leaders with this group of sophomores. They’ve stepped up and know what they have to do to be successful.”
Clark noted that the most time-consuming part of the job last season was hitting the recruiting trail.
“I was very busy with that. I also didn’t have an assistant, which took up more of my time. It was hard to get out and see kids, but my new assistant Billie [Spradley] will be a big help in that area.”
With Clark as her assistant, Spradley won two state volleyball titles at Alexandria High School in 1994 and 1995.
Returning for their sophomore seasons are outside hitter Morgan Newton, outside hitter Madison Shelby, rightside hitter Morgan Hudson, middle hitter Jewel Mathis, setter Savannah Beck, defensive specialist Annie Jane Crump and middle hitter Alex Vinson. Newton was named to the 2016 All-ACCC Region 22 first team after finishing the season with 214 kills.
“Morgan’s very small (at 5’5”) but she’s explosive and jumps really well,” said Clark. “She has a unique arm swing that’s hard to block, and she’s going to well in getting kills for us. Her passing and her defense have gotten much better since last year, and I’m excited to get to see her play again.
“Madison missed a little bit of last year with a concussion, and she’s gotten stronger since she’s been back. She’s also a good jumper and she’ll help us from the left side.
“Morgan [Hudson] spent time in the weight room and has gotten stronger and more powerful. think she’ll do a really good job of blocking for us, and she’s a pretty strong server, too.
“Jewel’s by far my strongest hitter. She’s played middle (hitter) in the past but she may play some at outside. We’ll put her where she’ll be the most effective for us.
“Savannah’s our only setter, so she’ll [set] for both the front row and back row. She’s also a pretty good blocker when she’s on front row. We’ve got to work on her hands a little, but, she’s doing very well so far.
“Annie’s our libero, so she’ll pretty much be on the court all the time. She reads the ball and moves well and is a great passer.
“Alex is in better shape and much improved from last year. Normally she’s a middle [hitter] but right now she’s playing back row for us. That’s a little odd, but she’s doing a very good job in that role.”
The freshman class features rightside hitter and 2017 Southside High graduate Alex Rich, middle hitter Jenna Hogan, setter Taylor Hackett and middle hitter Sierra Stone.
“Alex [Rich] is a lefty, so that’s a good weapon to have. She’s a really good kid who fit right in and is a very hard worker.
“Coach Spradley helped me find Jenna in the spring at some club ball tournaments. She’s got to get a little stronger but she’ll help us as a kind of utility player. We’ll see where she fits in best in different situations and plug her in.
“Taylor is our backup se-tter but probably will help us out more with passing in the back row. She needs a little more work with her hands but she’ll do well.
“I’ve been watching Sierra for a long time. She can hold her own at the net her presence up there will really help us blocking-wise.”
A 1989 West End High graduate, Clark was a part of four straight state championship teams with the Lady Patriots. She attended Gadsden State on a scholarship and played volleyball for the Lady Cardinals from 1989 to 1990. After graduating from Jacksonville State, she coached at Alexandria High School under Spradley.
Clark then coached at West End from 1998-2006. Clark was selected at Etowah County Coach of the Year in 2003 after the Lady Patriots finished with a 44-18 record and qualified for the Elite Eight state tournament. Clark coached at West End until 2006, when she joined Angie Sanders at Gadsden State as an assistant.
“I like to be able to say to the girls that I played here; I just usually tell them how long ago,” Clark said with a laugh. “I just tell them it was back in the day.”
The Lady Cardinals’ ACCC competition consists of Wallace-Hanceville, Snead State, Coastal Alabama at Brewton, Coa-stal Alabama South at Bay Minette, Wallace-Selma, Jeff Davis, Bevill State, Lawson State and Southern Union. The conference tournament will be held at Snead State in early November.
Wallace-Hanceville has won the past eight conference championships.
“[Wallace] will be on top until someone beats them,” said Clark. “I’m hoping that it will be us this year.”
The Lady Cardinals opened the season on Aug. 24 at Bevill State. The team’s home opener is this Tuesday (Aug. 29) against Point University.
Gadsden State hosts Cleveland State on Wednesday (Aug. 30) at the GSCC-Cherokee Arena in Centre.