By R. Alan Richardson
Morgan County’s volleyball squad fell to Westminster Academy (University) in a valiant effort last week to end their season. It was much closer than many thought it would be as the girls went down in three sets 25-15, 25-15, and 25-13 in the final hoorah for the Lady Bulldog’s five seniors. Lexi Forton, Katie Hill, Natalie Baddour, Aris Hubbard, and Madison Gasque may have all played their final set for MCHS, but will be remembered for their 2017 run to the Sweet Sixteen and the competitive team they put on the court.
Coach Greg Thompson said, “I didn’t know what to expect (from Westminster) except that they’ve always had a really solid team and program with a lot of tradition. Before the match I took a look at MaxPreps and didn’t think they were quite as strong as in the past. They went 10-0 in their Area, but outside the Area they were 13-18. Ultimately, I told the girls let’s go in there and compete. Let’s give them all they can handle. Don’t let balls hit the floor, block, and hit like you know how to. I was very pleased with the way we played by going up 7-0 early in the first set.”
According the Thompson, Westminster may have been taking the Lady Dogs lightly and didn’t think that Morgan would be as good as they were. The girls dug out hits that were going down, especially Gasque from her libero position, and did some good things early on. However, the Lady Wildcats woke up their serve and reeled off several points to tie things up at 7-all. After that the match went back-and-forth until Westminster broke out to a three point lead and ran off with the first set. Thompson commented, “We made a lot of good plays and were where we were supposed to be. Aris and Natalie had some good blocks during that set and we battled the entire set.”
The Lady Dogs came out a little sluggish in the second set and the home team took advantage, jumping out to a 7-2 lead. The girls played better after that before losing by the identical 25-15 score of the first set. After a short break between sets, the Wildcats showed their athleticism and talent by finalizing the match in 25-13 fashion. Thompson praised his team saying, “Overall we played consistent. 25-15 sounds like you got beat pretty good, but when you look back at some of our earlier scores in the season we lost to Blessed Trinity 25-8, 25-8. If you get 15 points, that’s respectable. When you get down to the final 16 teams the game speed is faster that we usually see. They do things offensively with quick sets and middle sets before you can even get a block up. They run a really good offense and are solid at every position. Gabi Dolan (5-11 and 304 kills on the season) is probably one of the top five outside hitters in the state with her jumping ability and athleticism. They are a really good team that is playing in the Final Four.”
When it was all said and done, Area 8-AAA stood tall with Jackson County the only team to advance to the Elite Eight. The Final Four will consist of Lovett, Pace, Westminster, and North Hall. It could set up what would be an all private school state championship match if North Hall doesn’t win. The other three are private and you know what that means. Student-athletes that go there will many times choose that school based on the strength of their teams and that includes volleyball. Let’s just say that they are loaded. In one sportswriter’s opinion, it isn’t fair, but that’s a story for another day.
“I keep saying how very proud I was of the girls. We took five seniors and five freshmen and made the Sweet Sixteen. They may have had some success at different levels, but to get a taste of riding to Tennessee, winning, and then realizing that we were one of the 16 best teams in the state in AAA, that’s a moment to remember. However, knowing and experiencing that, they now know that this is what you get. All four of the final four teams won their matches 3-0 (best out of five series) so that tells you something. It’s a different level of play and the girls, especially the freshmen, now know that.”
Thompson is now in his fourth season at the helm of the program with much success on his resume. All four years the team has made it to state. They’ve won an Area Championship, made the Sweet 16 twice and the Elite Eight once. All of those accomplishments are pretty gaudy for a guy who had never coached volleyball and never even attended a match at MCHS before he was named head coach. His response to all that was, “Pam Hooten deserves all the credit for anything we’ve accomplished. She started the program here and ran it for the first eight years or so. To put things into perspective, Pam was in a different Area than I’ve been in. She had to compete against the likes of Jefferson, Oconee County, and North Oconee, all schools with great volleyball programs. People look at it and say what we have done this and that…but the Area was so much better and tougher than the one we play in now. She deserves so much credit for where we are today.” Hooten is still a math teacher at Morgan County and coaches the girls’ golf team while also officiating volleyball state-wide.
Thompson wrapped up the season like this, “Overall I was very pleased with the season. We lost freshman Emma (Silvey) early to a hand problem and she didn’t compete until the last series with Westminster. Even then, she wasn’t her old self, but she did get the feel of what it’s like as did all our freshmen. I think we would have had a better shot at winning Area and giving Jackson County a run for their money with her. We have a great core group returning. We’re losing five good seniors, but have great leadership and talent coming back. We’ll just reevaulate like we do every year and play to our strengths. It might be that we go to a 6-2 offense next year because of Bailey’s (Shultz) strength as a passer, setter, and hitter.”
Congratulations on a fine season. We can’t wait till next year.