With a big front line and two experienced setters, many folks around the Three Rivers Conference believe this year’s Lady Cyclones squad is the best team Elizabethton coach Leslee Bradley has ever had. But instead of being elated, Bradley acted as if she were in the wrong place at the wrong time during the Three Rivers jamboree at Unicoi County High School on Tuesday.
“That’s the worst timing in the world,” Bradley said. “To have the best team I’ve ever had and have (Sullivan) South come into the conference, I mean, it’s terrible timing for us. But we’re trying to look at it as they’re going to make us better in the long run.”
Indeed, the Lady Rebels waltz into their first season in the league as a perceived powerhouse, and for good reason. South finished third in the Class AAA state tournament last season, and the Lady Rebels return plenty of key players from that team for their drop down to Class AA.
With hitters like Rylee Milhorn, Whitney Pickwell, Haley Price, JoBeth Conkin and Rebekah Larkins — all upperclassmen — the Lady Rebels could very well dominate during their first season of Three Rivers play. Add an excellent pair of setters like Hannah Johnson and Carrie Hall to the mix and South becomes even more dangerous on paper.
But Lady Rebels coach Wendy Ratliff downplayed the impending sense of doom coaches around the league seemed to be exuding during their media sessions.
“I’ve always felt like this whole region is good at volleyball, so it’s just a different set of teams,” Ratliff said. “Any team you’re going to play, you’re going to have to bring your best. It’s the same thing here.”
While Elizabethton is poised to have a breakout season with hitters Megan Pietrowski, Kelsi McKamey and Hannah Hulshult leading the way, Sullivan East has won the District 1-AA tournament three years running.
With junior Haley Roe, a two-time Three Rivers setter of the year, running an offense with no shortage of good hitters, East won’t be an easy out for South or anyone else. The Lady Patriots certainly didn’t seem nervous as they waited to have a team photo taken, giggling away while East coach Julia Rafalowski completed her media session.
“Look at them over there. They’re the nuttiest group of girls I’ve ever seen in my life,” Rafalowski said before turning her attention back to South’s arrival in the league. “It’s just made us a better team. It excites us. That’s the best way to put it.”
East’s hitters include sophomore Micaela Chaffin, who broke into the lineup as a freshman last season, as well as Tori James and Ashlyn Douglas, a pair of seniors.
With South, East and Elizabethton scuffling for the top spot, Sullivan North finds itself in the midst of a rebuilding year after losing some key seniors. Taylor Breeding, Alisha Howington, Makenna Smith and Hannah Dingus bring experience to the table, but North coach Debby Booher said a lot of things must come together for the Lady Raiders to be ready to make a postseason run.
“Hopefully we will peak at the right time at the district tournament, but it’s going to take us all season to get there,” Booher said. “And I think they will. They work hard. I’ve run them in the ground already and they just keep coming back for more.”