That is the best way to describe the Three Rivers Conference volleyball race this fall.
Sullivan South has had its way since dropping down to Class AA in 2013, but Sullivan Central made a dent in the Lady Rebels’ armor last season by ending South’s 65-match winning streak in the conference opener.
The Lady Cougars have all the right pieces to make a deep postseason run, but never, ever count out South. It seems that somehow, no matter how slowly they start, the Lady Rebels find a way to eventually get down to Murfreesboro.
In addition to the teams listed below, Unicoi County, Johnson County and Chuckey-Doak are also members of the conference.
There is most likely not a program more hungry to make a deep postseason run than the Lady Cougars.
Much like their league foes in Colonial Heights, the Blountville crew enters its final season in program history.
With six seniors and five juniors making up the complexion of the roster, the expectations are lofty for Central.
“The past couple of years, it has ended up being the same story of two teams that have battled it out,” coach Logan Kemp said. “We’ve come out on the short end of that and missed the regional tournament last year. I think this group wants to leave their mark on this program, but it’s not something we’ve talked about, being that it is the last season of Central volleyball.”
The biggest returner for the Lady Cougars is middle blocker Elaina Vaughan, who could arguably be considered for a spot on the all-state team if Central has a good enough season.
“Having Elaina coming back is a huge key to our team,” Kemp said. “Not just on the offensive end, but defensively, too. Her and Cassadi Cotter will probably be playing big on the front line for us.”
Senior outside hitter Taylor Wilson will be a big offensive contributor as well, but Kemp is high on senior Madie Harr.
“She’s come a long way,” he said. “In terms of hustle, Ann Marie Honeycutt is another one to keep an eye on.”
The obvious strength of the Central squad is the front line. Kemp remarked that he hasn’t seen any real weaknesses of the team yet, but there haven’t been any playdays to expose them.
“It’s hard to gauge what our weaknesses are in practice when we’re just going against ourselves until we get in a game,” he said. “As a coach, I can nitpick, but we’re really focused right now on being a more well-rounded team.”
As for the conference race, Central should be the favorite to win, having the best returners in key positions on the court.
“Personally, I think the way the conference is going to shake out depends on whoever comes ready to play,” Kemp said. “It would be kind of cool though for me as a former Central athlete to have it come full circle and help a team get to the section or state as a coach. That’s my goal.”
The long and storied history of the Lady Rebels program enters the final season on the court in Colonial Heights.
Five state championships, 31 appearances in the big dance and having only three coaches in 40 years shows consistency.
However, there is some rebuilding to be done for Wendy Ratliff’s squad. Gone are outside hitter Abbey Jayne and Makkenzie Compton, who both earned college scholarships.
There is some hope, though, in the form of senior outside hitter Katie Watson and junior setter Olivia Delung.
South has made five consecutive state tournament appearances, has lost only two Three Rivers Conference games since entering the league in 2013 and has never lost a District or Region 1-AA tournament game.
Some other promising returners include sophomore libero Molly Williams, who came on strong late last season in the state tourney run, and Allie Jordan, who ended up being a solid DS (defensive specialist).
One of the biggest keys will be junior middle blocker Izzy Musick.
Playing big minutes in the postseason and making several key plays to keep South’s hopes alive in the elimination match against Anderson County, Musick was thrown into the fire quickly but learned equally fast.
Depth is the key word for the Lady Patriots this season.
“I’ve got 12 players that can play and a lot of them can play multiple positions,” coach Tracy Graybeal said. “I’ve pretty much got all of my starters back from last season and a few new players that looked pretty good in practice a couple of weeks ago before we had to quarantine.”
Sullivan East last season, according to Graybeal, was young and inexperienced. But now, the Lady Patriots are a more seasoned team and have a handful of pieces that could lead to a deep postseason run.
“One of our middle blockers, Riley Nelson, is back after getting hurt early in the season last year,” Graybeal said. “We’ve got Mia Hoback that is a good setter for us, and then our sophomores Jenna Hare and Hannah Hodge are almost like upperclassmen because they got so much playing time as freshmen last year.”
Seniors Gracey Byrd, Zoe Johnson, Cayden Bawgus and Alie White will also be big contributors.
“Alie White can absolutely jump out of the gym,” Graybeal said. “She has got some hops. Cayden can play a lot of different positions for us. She’s a good setter. She’s a good middle and she can also play at DS.”
Graybeal acknowledged that this season would be one of some uncertainty because other than some intrasquad scrimmages, nobody has had any playdays or at the media night.
“Usually at this time, we’ve already had a playday or two and the jamboree, but when we go to Unicoi next week, that will be our first competition period,” she said. “This is all a learning experience, but I’m excited to see what our team can do on the floor.”
The Lady Cyclones made it all the way to the sectional last season before falling to Anderson County in straight sets, but most of the players that got them there have graduated.
Leslee Bradley, now in her 25th year, knows that her team is young, but the future is bright for Elizabethton.
“I only have two seniors and two juniors,” Bradley said. “But the young kids can play. It was a good year to bring in a good freshman class.
“Both of my seniors have been starters since they were sophomores, so they have a lot of experience. Our big hitters are Brittany Kitchens and Mattie Davis.”
The Lady Cyclones will most likely consist of seniors Kitchens and Kallista DePrimo along with juniors Davis and Anna Fontanez; sophomores Jaci Bowers, Grace Martin, and Cheyenne Poiroux; and freshmen Karie Merritt, Bailee Van Huss and Makaiah Williams.
“South won the conference and they are still the team to beat,” Bradley said. “I think Central will be a top contender as well, but our feeder program has been tremendous the past few years, and it has helped us keep pace with the top teams.”