By Gene Stanley/Messenger Sports Correspondent
With the advent of high school volleyball season, balls started bouncing for real last Thursday,
While all remains the same for the start of the year, there are some real changes on the horizon for playoff-caliber squads.
Starting this season, the volleyball postseason will resemble that of softball, in that after the area tournaments, qualifying teams will advance to a “super regional,” with the top teams from that tournament going to the Elite Eight.
All teams from the North will play in Huntsville’s Von Braun Center. This will mark the end of the sub-regional round and combine the smaller regionals into the one large tourney.
“We think this will elevate the championship program to a new level for volleyball and provide a memorable and positive experience for our student-athletes and schools,” Alabama High School Athletic Association Executive Director Steve Savarese said at the time of the rule change.
The winners and runners-up of the area tournaments will advance to the super regional. In years past, however, the next round was sub-regional and could sometimes involve a lot of travel, something the AHSAA is trying to cut down.
“Most years, whoever finished second in the area tournament had to travel a really long way for sub-regionals, only to play one match,” new Gaston High coach Miranda Love said. “This should help a lot with travel costs.”
The super regional will be formatted exactly like the Elite Eight, with single-loss eliminations.
The top four finishers in each classification will advance to the state tournament. Ergo, a first-round win in Huntsville guarantees a trip to Pelham, with seeding to be determined by later-round play.
In recent years, Gaston has been the most successful playoff team from Etowah County.
The Bulldogs won a Class 1A state championship in 2008 and advanced to the semifinals last season before losing to perennial powerhouse Addison.
A 2007 Gaston graduate, Love played on the GHS varsity for four years. As a senior, Love helped Gaston bring home a state runner-up trophy.
The Bulldogs go back up to Class 2A for the first time in several years and will be paired with Westbrook Christian, West End and Sand Rock in Area 13.
West End was a 2A Elite Eight team last year, making the quarterfinals.
“That’s going to be a tough area,” Love said. “But it’ll be good. We need some good competition to prepare for the playoffs, if we make it.”
Gaston has five seniors in Kristin Barton, Taylor Rogers, Madison Reaves, Heather Short and Amy Sims to try and help make Love’s first season a success.
“We’ve got a chance to be really good this year,” Love said. “We’re replacing our setter, but seem to be in good shape across the board.”
Southside advanced to the 5A Elite Eight last year but suffered a first-round loss to Curry. Etowah and Southside are in 5A, Area 13, as are Fort Payne and Boaz.
Jim Bogle, who helped make Gaston into the perennial small-school powerhouse it is today, will coach the Blue Devils.
In 3A, Glencoe is matched with Ashville, Cleveland and Susan Moore in Area 9.
“We finished third in our area last season,” Glencoe coach Donna Ingram said. “I’ve seen a steady improvement every year, so I’m hoping this is our year to come of age.”
This will be Ingram’s fourth season at Glencoe. She has three seniors who have been with her from the start in Brennan Ingram, Laura Poovey and Hope Gaskin. Another senior, Jordan Sims, is returning to the court after not playing as a sophomore or junior.
“These seniors have really stepped up and done a good job of helping the younger girls with the little things,” Donna Ingram said. “They’re doing the things seniors are supposed to do.”
The Yellow Jackets are only missing one player from last year’s team, and their nemesis – Hokes Bluff – has moved up to 4A, so there is definitely room for playoff hopes.
In addition, perennial power Ashville, an area-mate, may be down some this year, being hit hard by graduation.
Class 4A, Area 11 contains Hokes Bluff, Alexandria, Cherokee County and Jacksonville. Moving up to 4A from 3A, Sardis will compete with Crossville, Douglas and Guntersville for the Area 12 title.
Coosa Christian is in Class 1A, Area 12, along with Appalachian, Jacksonville Christian and Ragland.
Gadsden City is in Area 13 of Class 6A, with Clay-Chalkville, Oxford and Pell City.