Tuesday, August 11, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Lady Red Devils embrace role as program builders

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville volleyball team will have several familiar faces on the court this year, but a new one running things from the sidelines. Whitney Abdullah takes over as the bona fide head coach, taking the place of Crystal Scott.

Coach Scott sat in as interim coach last year when the team lost its previous head coach just before the season began. Scott is now the head girls’ basketball coach, moving from her assistant basketball position after the departure of William Rountree to Maumelle.

Abdullah was Scott’s assistant a year ago, and has made some big changes since last spring.

“We started in early May doing strength and conditioning and just working on fine tuning our basic mechanics and volleyball skills,” said Abdullah. “Since then we’ve been going four days a week all summer long. We lost a few over the course of the summer to transfer or girls just deciding they didn’t want to play, but I’m really excited about the ones that are still here. The dedication they’ve shown has really paid off.”

Four seniors return to the starting lineup from last year’s team that finished fifth in the league, one spot short of making the playoffs in the 5A Central. The Lady Red Devils have good size in senior hitters Kym House and Terionna Stewart. Emily Lovercheck is short, but an athletic and crafty setter who sees the court well. Cassandra Smith is the fourth senior who returns as a defensive specialist.

Juniors Elizabeth Brown and Taylor Toombs also got varsity experience as sophomores and will likely be in the starting lineup this season. Brown was a hitter and defensive specialist last season, and will also set this year. Toombs is a versatile player, capable of playing throughout the entire rotation.

There will also be several sophomores that figure into things this year. Brittney Eskridge is one of the most improved players since the spring sessions.

“She has really impressed me over the summer,” Abdullah said. “She has come leaps and bounds as far as her understanding of things.”

Rebecca Brown is another sophomore Abdullah thinks could have a breakout year.

“She is going to surprise you,” Abdullah said. She has a lot of talent and she has the smarts we need out there for just being a 10th grader.

“Alana Harris is another sophomore that has really started tracking the ball great, and Savannah McKinney is a setter that has really worked hard this summer getting better at that position.”

Abdullah presided over a team meeting in April to lay down the rules for developing the foundation for a successful program. More than 20 players started with the team in spring, and the roster is down to 14, but the new head coach is excited about what remains.

“After April trials we sat down as a team,” Abdullah said. “We talked about the fact that we haven’t had a program here and we had to instill things that we haven’t had before. In order for us to build a program and become successful, this is what it’s going to take.

“The ones still here have been there and worked hard, even when they didn’t like it. I really have a lot of respect for these girls because they’ve shown that dedication. They understand it’s a process that probably won’t change things overnight, but they’re laying that foundation. They’ve really improved over the summer and they’re excited about the season and having the chance to show people their progress.”