Special To The Times
The Cullman Times
Wallace State’s volleyball team, ranked No. 18 in the NJCAA preseason poll, begins the 2013 season today, hosting its sixth annual season-opening tournament at the Tom Drake Coliseum.
The Lions have been the premier team in the state the last four years, winning the Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC)/Region 22 Tournament each year, as well as the ACCC regular-season championship for five straight seasons.
Unlike the previous four campaigns, this Wallace State team isn’t heavy on experience. The freshman-laden Lions have 11 newcomers and three sophomores.
“We don’t have as many sophomores returning as we’ve had in the past. That’s what has made this offseason somewhat unique. We are searching for our leaders, but leadership is earned and not always given,” Wallace State coach Randy Daniel said. “I’m confident in the 11 freshmen we have and know some of them will show the qualities that a more experienced player has, plus we do have three quality sophomores who know how to win. I’m excited about the potential of this group. The expectations are high as always.”
Daniel has been the one constant among Wallace State’s dominance within the state, solidifying the Lions as the team to beat each season. Daniel enters his seventh year at Wallace State with a 228-41 career record. He is a few wins shy of becoming the all-time winningest coach in volleyball program history.
“We’ve been fortunate to have great players and people come through this program. The thing about coaching, at this point in my career, is developing bonds with the team and with individuals. It’s important that we like each other and create an atmosphere where playing volleyball is fun,” Daniel said. “My goal is to always connect with the team and make sure we understand and respect each other. If we do that, winning will take care of itself.”
Returning sophomores from last year’s 33-8 team are setter Nicole Penny and outside hitter Kianna Delaney. Penny, an ACCC/Region 22 All-Tournament selection last season and second-team All-Region member, finished with a team-high 1,076 assists, while Delaney, a second-team All-Region member, was second on the team with 249 digs and third with 361 kills.
Blaise Brown joins the Lions as a sophomore after transferring from Snead State, where she played considerable minutes for the Parsons last season.
Freshman outside hitter Montana Clark is expected to play a significant role in Wallace State’s success after setting Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) records at Plainview High. She is the state’s all-time leader with 3,045 career digs and third all-time with 2,569 career kills.
Daniel also expects strong freshman contributions from outside hitter BreAnna Thompson, 5-foot-10 outside hitter Bethany Johnson and Oak Mountain graduate Rosemary Wendel.
“Montana Clark has probably turned into one of our better leaders so far. She is very vocal and her effort in practice has been consistent. Montana’s ball control defense is very good,” Daniel said. “BreAnna Thompson has had a great fall camp, and Bethany Johnson is doing well. Rosemary Wendel has improved a lot lately, and she has to fill some important shoes by replacing Jessica Coombs, who gave us so much leadership and court savvy.”
Other freshmen on this season’s roster are Kaitlin Hooper (Lawrence County High), Olivia Walker (Alexandria), Taylor Traglia (Grissom), Kaci Kirk (Plainview), Lynlee Taylor (Mortimer Jordan), Payton Norris (Curry) and Syretha Pride (Madison County).
Pride, a high school All-American, was set to be the jewel of Wallace State’s freshman class, but she suffered a stress fracture in preseason practice and is out at least until late October.
After winning its fourth straight ACCC/Region 22 championship last season, Wallace State advanced to the NJCAA national tournament in West Plains, Mo., for the 13th time in its history. Erica Baker was named an honorable mention All-American and became the fourth player in four years to be recognized with the honor.
Coombs, last year’s conference tournament MVP and the program’s all-time leader in single-season and career digs, will serve as an assistant coach this season.
Wallace State’s season-opening tournament is a two-day event. The Lions play Walters (Tenn.) State at noon today, Andrew (Ga.) College at 2 p.m. and Gadsden State at 6 p.m. They’ll play St. John’s (Fla.) CC at 10 a.m. Saturday and Snead State at 2 p.m. This season, the Lions will also play in tournaments at Pensacola, Fla., Panama City, Fla., Vincennes, Ind., and West Plains, Mo.
Daniel believes it’s the most challenging schedule he’s ever put together.
“The competition week in and week out is very tough. In Indiana, we’ll have to play the third and fourth-ranked teams in the country and another ranked right below us. We may take our lumps throughout the regular season and that’s fine. It will get us well prepared for the postseason,” Daniel said. “We ultimately look forward to holding the conference the way we’ve held it. We want to win the regular season and conference tournament championships. If we do that, then we hope to do our best at the national tournament and be proud knowing we are part of it.”