Photo: Gadsden State’s Sierra Stone passes the ball as Mikayla Kendrick, Alex Rich, Grace Nolen and Abbie Chambless look on during a recent Gadsden State volleyball team practice. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
With 12 freshmen on her 2018 roaster, Gadsden State head volleyball coach Connie Clark expects a good deal of baptism by fire this fall.
“This probably is the best recruiting calls we’ve had, so we have really good depth; we just need to get some game experience,” said Clark, who teaches at Hokes Bluff Middle School. “A lot of our younger girls will have to play right away, so it’s going to be sink or swim for them.”
The sophomore trio includes outside hitter and 2017 Southside High graduate Alex Rich, defensive specialist Taylor Hackett and middle hitter Sierra Stone.
In limited action last season, Rich finished with 33 digs, 10 kills and eight blocks, Hackett had 106 digs and 70 sets and Stone ended up with 79 kills 52 digs and 48 blocks.
Stone’s season was cut short when she suffered a hip fracture in mid-September.
“Sierra’s back and she’s healthy, and she’ll be a big part of the team,” said Clark. “Alex played some toward the end of last year when our numbers were down, and she’s greatly improved. She’ll see some playing time. Taylor probably saw the floor more than any of the three returning players. She did a good job in the back row last year and has improved her serving.”
Gadsden State went 21-11 overall and 12-7 in Alabama Community College Conference action.
The Lady Cardinals made it to the quarterfinal round at last year’s the conference tournament, defeating Sou-thern Union and Lawson State and losing to Southern Union and eventual state champion Wallace-Hanceville. Clark thought her team did the best it could with the limited roster she had at her disposal during the latter half of the season.
“We were really shorthanded at the end with players out with injuries and girls playing hurt,” she said. “Our girls played their hearts out but we just didn’t have the numbers in the end. Hopefully we can stay at little healthier this year.”
The 2018 freshmen class includes defensive specialist Grace Nolen, defensive specialist Jaylyn Freeman, middle/outside hitter Abbie Chambless, rightside hitter Allie Chambless, outside hitter Shelby Bates, middle hitter Landry Bussey, outside hitter Aubrey Pope, middle/outside hitter Mikayla Kendrick, middle hitter Emorie Long, setter Madelyn Massey, outside hitter Taylor Spradley and setter Brooke Murphy.
“Right now, we’re just trying to find out where best to put people, but most of those girls will see a lot of playing time,” said Clark. “But like it is every year for all of the freshmen, there’s an adjustment period to get used to the speed of the game at this level. We have to be disciplined in anticipating where the ball is going and then getting there very quickly.”
Although they will be new to the junior college level, six members of the GSCC freshmen class won state championships last season – Nolan and Long with 6A Pelham, Pope and Spradley with 5A Alexandria and the Chambless twins at 1A Addison. Abbie Chambless, Spradley and Long were the MVPs of their respective Elite Eight state tournaments.
“We have a really good group of girls who know how to win,” said Clark. “They’ve been practicing for the past few weeks and are really starting to come together.”
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 was an assistant coach under Billie Spradley at Alexandria High School. The duo led the Lady Valley Cubs to state titles in 1994 and 1995. Spradley is now Clark’s assistant coach.
Clark then coached at West End from 1998-2006. She was selected Eto-wah County Schools 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 San-ders at Gadsden State as an assistant.
The Lady Cardinals’ ACCC competition consists of Wallace-Hanceville, Snead State, Coastal Alabama East at Brewton, Coastal Alabama South at Bay Minette, Wallace-Selma, Jeff Davis, Bevill State, Lawson State and Southern Union. Wallace-Hanceville, which has won the past nine conference championships, will host this year’s ACCC Tournament.
“[Wallace] will be on top until someone beats them,” said Clark. “I’m hoping that it will be us.”
The Lady Cardinals open their season this weekend with a tournament at Snead State. They begin conference play this Thursday (Aug. 30) at Coastal Alabama East and host Wallace-Hanceville on Sept. 5.
“We’ve got to be ready to go right out of the gate,” said Clark. “Our younger girls will have to be fast learners.”