Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

August 23, 2013

Richlands netters progressing

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

RICHLANDS, Va. — Another season is on tap for the Richlands volleyball team.

Richlands head coach Ronnie Sparks is anxious to see what will be a young, but talented collection of Lady Blues on the court.

“I am always excited about every season,” Sparks said. “Every season you have got new players, you have some graduate and you have got new players that come up and you are excited to see how well they are going to transition into your varsity squad, and your middle school kids moving up to JV.”

Three starters returns for the Lady Blues, who finished just above .500 last year with the season ending in heartbreaking fashion. That also ended the prep careers of Rachel Alley, who is now playing at Bluefield College, along with talented libero Keisha Lynch.

“We ended up fourth in the district, we lost to Abingdon in the (Southwest District) semifinals in five games, like 16-14 in game five,” Sparks said. “It was one of those back and forth games and they just got that last two points on us and they got to move on and we didn’t.

“We have a lot of good players back.”

That includes outside hitter Mac Cordill, and fellow seniors Hannah Alley and Sarah Compton, who will switch positions to middle hitters for the Blues.

“They both were our setters last year, they are moving back to the middle,” Sparks said. “Both of our middles graduated, and they were middle hitters in JV so they are stepping back in that role to help us out and I think they will do really well there.”

Richlands will also benefit from the return of a pair of seniors who were injured much of last season, Ashley Martin and Nichole Elswick.

“They are both back this year and hopefully they will stay healthy enough to make it through their senior season,” Sparks said. “I know they want to do that.”

Seven other players also comprise the Richlands roster, including freshman Olivia Harman, who will be the setter for the Blues.

“We had her on the JV team last year as an eighth grader setting the ball,” Sparks said. “That was the plan to get her trained as a setter to have her this year so I think she is going to do a good job.

“She is tall so she is good on that side to help block, she hits the ball really well so we will try to get her some opportunities to hit because everybody likes to hit. To be a freshman, she is a great athlete.

“It is a big job to put her in, but I think she will do a good job for us. She is a really good setter so it is nice to have her for about four years.”

Multi-sport standout Nadia Ashiq and fellow sophomore Kelsey Berry will also contribute.

“(Nadia) is a three-sport athlete, she is going to be our libero this year,” Sparks said. “Both of them in the first week of practice are doing extremely well.”

Other junior varsity imports include senior Nichole Elswick and the junior quartet of Kayla Lowe, Chloe Jackson, Gabby Doud and Ailey Earls.

The challenge is blending all those parts into a cohesive unit, with the season slated to begin on Tuesday at home against Graham.

“It is always a challenge, but it is fun just seeing them progress from year to year so I am always excited about every new season because you never know what to expect,” Sparks said. “It seems like every year kids always surprise you with how well they progress and how well they do.”

No longer a part of the Southwest District, the Blue Tornado is seeded in a district for scheduling purposes, but will be in a Division 2 conference in the postseason in a grouping that includes Tazewell, Marion, Graham, Grundy and Grayson County. Actual varsity district tournaments will not be played.

While Sparks is still unsure about how the ratings will work that determines playoff seedings, his schedule does include each of those teams.

“The best of my knowledge, I know it is a point system, we get points for winning and points if you lose depending on which team you play,” Sparks said. “Then they will seed the conference tournament based on your point total, we are playing every team in our conference, which will be good, so we can see what is what and no surprises when you get there.”

Sparks does like the fact that the Lady Blues won’t be stuck playing much larger schools from Roanoke or surrounding areas when it comes to advancing in postseason play.

“Your conference is based on the size of your school instead of location like it used to be,” Sparks said. “We will be playing schools more our own size as far as students go so hopefully it will be a little more fair in most sports, but still in our region any way there is some tough volleyball competition.

“Gate City, Union, all those schools are tough. We get out of facing teams like Cave Spring and Hidden Valley and the River Ridge and you pick up those teams so you are kind of in the same boat either way.”

Richlands, which ended Carroll County’s long run of Southwest District volleyball titles a few years ago, has a history of success on the court, and Sparks expects it to continue into the future.

“Our district will be tough, our schedule will be tough, the teams are pretty solid,” Sparks said. “We have got a good group of girls, very athletic, very competitive.

“The younger girls are really talented so they will be a good mix with all of our more experienced players so I expect a lot out of them this year.”

— Contact Brian Woodson