By Chris McCarthy/Editor
Last season Gadsden State came within a whisker of winning its first state volleyball title since 2005, and head coach Angie Sanders is confident that her 2012 squad is more than capable of breaking the program’s six-year championship drought.
The 2011 Lady Cardinals, who posted a 31-8 overall record and 11-2 mark in conference action, made it to the Alabama Community College Conference title match last November, where after battling back from the loser bracket, No. 2 seed GSCC defeated No. 1 seed Wallace State-Hanceville in a hard-fought first title match. That victory set up an “if-necessary” second championship match, in which the top-seeded Lady Lions eventually prevailed for their third straight ACCC title.
“I’ve got a good core coming back that absolutely hates to lose,” said Sanders, who has complied a 535-96 record in eight years as coach of the Lady Cardinals. “I’ve got five sophomores that aren’t afraid of anybody. I know what they’re going to bring to the table an I know how hard they’re going to play.”
Up until the initial championship contest, Gadsden State hadn’t beaten Wallace-Hanceville since the 2007 ACCC Tournament semifinals, a stretch of 28 matches.
“I think that we’ve overcome the intimidation that [Wallace State] had over us the past few years. I think that maybe sometimes we’ve built that up too much. Our focus this year is on us getting better as a team, not on Wallace. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ll be ready.”
Given that Gadsden State lost its top three hitters in Laneisha Anderson, La-Toya Ellington and Dee Hutchins, Sanders focused on the front line in terms of recruiting this offseason.
Gadsden native Hutchins signed with the University of North Alabama, while LaToya will play at Alabama State this fall.
Sophomore outside hitter Peyton Higgins is back. Higgins, who was named to the All-ACCC Tournament team, was fourth on the team in kills with 1.6 per match. She also had 31 aces.
“Peyton is a good all-around player, and she’s a great passer,” said Sanders. “She’s a little-bitty thing, but Peyton’s tough, mentally and physically. She’s never going to give me anything less than 100 percent.”
Also expected to see time at the net is sophomore Kristen O’Barr, who collected 55 kills last year.
“Kristen knocks the stuffing out of the ball and hits very hard,” said Sanders.
Setter looks to be strength, as Peri Bryant returns. Bryant was the team leader in assists with 9.4 per match. She also had 29 aces.
“Peri has worked very hard in the offseason,” said Sanders. “She was never big, but she’s really trimmed up and muscled up and really looks good.”
Also back at the position is Felicia Hanson. Hanson contributed 126 assists.
“Felecia’s in the army, so she always comes back in excellent shape,” said Sanders.
Also back is defensive specialists Kayla Howard and McKenzie Slivka. Howard led the team in digs and aces with 134 and 44, respectively.
“To me, Kayla’s one of the best defensive players in the conference,” said Sanders. “McKenzie also has worked very hard in the offseason.”
Both Bryant and Howard were selected to the All-Region 22 second team.
Sanders’ recruiting class features local products Mal-ory Moland of Hokes Bluff and Tanna Lawson of Gaston. Moland will play at middle hitter, while Lawson is a defensive specialist.
Joining Moland and Lawson in the freshman class are outside hitter C.J. Payton from Oxford, middle hitter Molly Thompson from Priceville, middle hitter Collin Nichols from Madison County, middle hitter Devonna Taylor from Alexandria, outside hitter Kendra Lackey from Atlanta, Ga., and setter/defensive specialist Amy Estes from Jacksonville.
“You got your studs coming in, and then you have some girls that you don’t really know how they’re going to adapt,” said Sanders. “But so far they’ve worked hard and gelled well with the sophomores.”
Two matches that Sanders has circled on her schedule are with Snead State. The Lady Parsons’ head coach is Dee Ayers, the former Southside coach whom Sanders coached on the SHS volleyball several years ago.
“I think Dee will do a great job with that program,” said Sanders. “That young lady is a great coach and a fabulous person. I think she’ll catch on really fast at this level.”
Prior to the Wallace-Hanceville Tournament on Aug. 24-25, the Lady Cardinals will scrimmage North Alabama, West Alabama and Shorter in the space of five days next week.
“That’s three four-year schools we play right off the bat, and I want my girls to see the difference in the speed from high school to college ball,” said Sanders.
Once again set to lend Sanders is Connie Clark, a West End graduate who has been with Sanders all six years at GSCC.
Sanders is excited about her squad’s trip to Blinn, Tex., early next month, where the Lady Cardinals will hone their skills against some of the top teams in the country. For the first time in the program’s history, the Lady Cardinals are ranked in the National Junior College Athletic Association’s preseason poll. GSCC came in at No. 20, while Wallace-Hanceville was ranked 15th in the nation.
“ If we play well and beat some of those higher-ranked teams, then we won’t have to go into the national tournament play the top seed right off the bat,” said Sanders.
GSCC opens the season with a home match against Snead State on Aug. 28.