On a day on which Paige Wilson was forced to miss practice, members of her Camden High volleyball team were being interviewed by a reporter from WLTX TV 19 in Columbia after an online poll conducted by the station rated the Lady Bulldogs as the top team in the Midlands heading into the upcoming season.
For a team looking for a pre-season spark and, perhaps, its own identity, this jolt of enthusiasm was just what the veteran CHS head coach said her team needed. Wilson said after the surprise announcement was made to the team, the girls enjoyed their best practice of the pre-season.
“I think it got them fired up,” Wilson said of the unexpected honor. “I think it got our girls pumped up and they want to live up to the vote.”
A season ago, Camden’s run of conference titles came to an end when it finished second behind Chapin in Region 4-AAA. The Lady Bulldogs breezed past Woodruff in their state tournament opener before seeing their season come to an end in a second round loss Pickens.
Wilson and company have come back fortified in 2014 with a 16-player roster which, Wilson said, is the largest she can remembers since taking over the Lady Bulldog reins for a 1994 season in which the program won the second of its three straight AAA state crowns.
This squad has a little bit of everything. Five seniors, including four returnees, will provide leadership along with two returning juniors and sophomores whose feet have already gotten wet against varsity competition. Depth should not be an issue but finding the fire to close out points, sets and matches is what Wilson has been looking for from her troops in the pre-season.
“We lost some strong players last year, but I think we have some who, I think, are capable of stepping it up,” Wilson said. “I think that we’re a skilled team, but we just have to find that fire. We need to be able to go beyond skill and execution and play with more intensity to win the point and not just play the point.
“I feel we’re pretty solid all the way around,” she added. “We’re skilled in almost every area. We’re, of course, counting on our seniors and other returning players in all grades. I think our returning players all bring strength and we’ve brought up new players who add strength.”
While having 10 players alongside her on the bench at all times, Wilson said being two- and, sometimes, three-deep in some spots will be a challenge in terms of girls seeing court time. Fighting for playing time has led to spirited battles in practice.
“Having 16 players is challenging as far as getting playing time,” Wilson said. “But every position has somebody there to push each other and we can use that to our advantage. Honestly, skill-wise, I feel pretty good about this team.”
The Lady Bulldogs will lean on a solid senior class which is led by fourth-year returning starter Morgan Wilson. The defensive specialist is coming off a AAA All-State campaign a season ago and will be counted on to trigger the attack.
Michaela Taylor is another fourth-year player who is expected to be an anchor along the front row while also getting time along the back row. Maddison Flowers enjoyed a breakout season at setter last fall and is expected to pick up where she left off in her final go-around while Mary Best comes off a strong off-season of club volleyball and is ready to become a factor on the front and back rows while also being able to step in at setter.
The newcomer to the senior quintet is Margaret Rabon, a transfer from Sumter, who can play along either row.
Emma Buchanan and Kristin Carter are the two juniors back from last year’s squad. Buchanan will probably see most of her playing time on the front row but Wilson did not rule out a setter’s role, at times, for Buchanan. Carter, who plays softball in the spring for CHS, is a talented athlete who may find her comfort zone as a middle hitter but can play anywhere along the net while possibly being asked to play the back row.
Junior newcomers Elizabeth Brown and Shelby Troublefield are primarily defensive players who are coming along in practice as they get used to the speed of the varsity game.
Nearly half of Camden’s roster is included in a seven-player sophomore class which features returning varsity players Faith Grant, who was a middle hitter last season, and Emma Nash, who saw time in several front row spots as a freshman but who may settle into a role as an outside hitter. Wilson said the pair worked hard to improve their respective games in the off-season.
Newcomers Katie White, a front row right side player, Lisa Powers, a heady player who can be used along both rows, Alexis McLeod, whose strength is playing along the next but can play anywhere on the floor, Courtney Chestnut, a quick defensive specialist, and Hannah Baker, who Wilson can put any place on the court, have joined the fold.
In the case of the all the first-year varsity players, regardless of class, Wilson said getting used to the quicker pace of play at the varsity level is the biggest obstacle all the girls have been working on in practice and in scrimmages.
“I think we’ve improved with each scrimmage but we have played more people than we would normally play,” she said. “We’re giving everybody a little playing time to see how they will perform under pressure and trying to find that lineup that will work best.”
With a blend of experienced and first-year varsity players, Wilson said she is impressed with the team’s cohesion. “I feel like the chemistry of this team is really good. I think we have strengths in all areas and there is somebody to push everybody,” she said.
Until somebody unseats Chapin, Wilson said the girls from Lake Murray are the team to beat going into 4-AAA play. The Lady Bulldog boss hopes her girls can be the ones who knock the Lady Eagles off their perch.
“Our girls know what they need to do and they know what this team needs to do to get better and they are working at it; I’ve been pleased with that,” Wilson said. “I’m expecting good things every year out of every year, but this team is very capable and I really want to see them play to their potential.”