TIFTON — Volleyball jumps into the spotlight Thursday afternoon as the Tift County Lady Devils begin their regular season. Tift plays at 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. at Valdosta High against their host and Highlands Christian.
This season opening is being met with excitement by coaches and players, for it seems the Lady Devils might be on the verge of the best season in school history.
The program began in 2013 and, because of the nature of Georgia High School Association brackets at the time, earned a state tournament bid. The brackets were amended the next season and Tift was shut out of the postseason until last year.
The momentum from that appearance carried over to the summer. At the Packer Bash in July, Tift County went 9-0-1.
“I’m hoping it’s definitely a sign to come,” said head coach Caleb Dawson who enters his second season as program leader.
Dawson’s squad has a strong foundation. Fourteen of his 17 varsity players are returnees. He has six seniors: Annah Daniel, Rebecca Jinright, Chayla Lopez, Elisa Melendez, Alyssa Sparks and Heather Wells. Jinright and Lopez are the team captains.
“We really know each other,” he said. “We know each other’s strengths.”
He thinks the state tournament appearance in 2018 has been a big push. “They’ve got a real good taste of competing,” he said, “earning a spot into state instead of being gifted into state. They want to turn this into a successful sport.”
One aspect that is building up is the athleticism of the players. Dawson said there are many ninth and 10th graders who easily push themselves into a varsity slot. He and his charges are also now more comfortable with each other. “Last summer, they were getting to know me. I had to understand the buttons to push,” he said.
Assisting Dawson are Francisco Aguirre and Melody Gentry.
The local volleyball program has grown so much that not only does Tift have a middle school program, but Dawson started up a ninth grade team. Dawson said Lowndes and Colquitt County will have freshmen teams as well.
Following their opener, Tift will have road matches at Ware County (Aug. 13) and Thomas County Central (Aug. 15) before coming home Aug. 20 to play Thomasville and Sherwood Christian.