August 22, 2009 11:35:00 PM
CALEDONIA -- Shaina Cruse feels like she is part of history.
With each practice and match she plays, the senior setter grows a little more comfortable with her Caledonia High School volleyball teammates.
Cruse, who also plays goalkeeper on the school''s girls soccer team, has been playing volleyball for only two years, but she dives on the floor to keep loose balls alive with the same hustle she throws her body at soccer balls.
To watch Cruse play volleyball, you wouldn''t know she is a newcomer to the sport.
And with each match Caledonia plays, it takes a step to becoming a program capable of competing at a higher level.
Macy Hicks and Whitney Pounders each had six kills Saturday to lead Caledonia to a 3-0 victory against Lamar County.
Set scores were 25-22, 25-18, 25-23.
"We are a lot more improved," Cruse said. "We are running some quick plays and more plays than we did last year. We are having fewer tips over and we are swinging a lot more. Our passing is better, and our defense is a lot better."
Kara von Kanel had four kills and seven aces, and Blaire Ruth and Sunnie Rushing each had three kills to lead a balanced attack.
"We won, which was a positive, but our communication was down and our serving was completely off," Caledonia High volleyball coach Samantha Brooks said. "Our serving has been one of our strengths, and today it was not at all."
The Lady Confederates won the bronze medal last weekend in the silver division of the Ridgeland Set It Off Challenge. They followed up that finish earlier this week with victories against Ackerman and Corinth.
The victory against Ackerman was the team''s first against that school in Brooks'' three seasons at the school.
Brooks, who played volleyball at the Mississippi University for Women, helped start the Caledonia High volleyball program nine years ago. She said the addition of a middle school team last year and a existence of a junior varsity program continues to help the varsity program grow.
Brooks said the team played together against Ackerman and Corinth and that the team''s defense was equally tough. She said the team''s nerves and the fact that it was playing at home might have contributed to the team''s performance against Lamar County.
But performances like the one Caledonia delivered Saturday are typical of any program, especially one that is learning volleyball every day.
The sport doesn''t have a huge tradition or following in the state of Mississippi, which is part of the reason Brooks'' eyes light up when she is asked if it is a building process with the volleyball program. She said the desire to teach the game of volleyball to players was one of the main reasons she decided to become a coach.
"We have learned the fundamentals and the correct techniques -- the real way to play volleyball, the real positions," Brooks said. "The girls have just so much more knowledge about volleyball than they did in the past."
Brooks said it is a common misperception that volleyball at the high school level is played just like it is in the backyard, when players scramble to keep the ball alive and get it over the net any way they can.
Instead, Brooks continues to introduce new skills and strategies to her players.
Cruse and von Kanel, who also is a senior, said the Lady Confederates'' ability to run plays and to perform other more advanced skills like jump serving, setting the ball backward to a hitter, or attempting to kill the ball from the back row (a back-row attack) have given the team so much more confidence.
Von Kanel has been with the program for four years. She said she enjoys playing for Brooks because she has a knack for communicating her knowledge and her passion for the game to the players.
"We have improved a lot," von Kanel said. "It wasn''t as organized and we run plays now."
The Lady Confederates also have the confidence to try new skills. Early in game two, von Kanel broke out a jump serve for the first time. A jump serve is a more advanced skill where the server tosses the ball into the air, gets a moving start, and leaps to hit the ball. The serve usually has more pace and topspin and is tougher to return.
Von Kanel''s first two jump serves earned Caledonia points before she committed a serving error. But von Kanel said the fact that she is attempting a jump serve in a match shows how much she has matured as a player.
"I have been working on a jump serve since last year," von Kanel said. "When we get ahead she gives me a sign to try it."
Cruse''s ability to run plays and to set the ball backward and for hitters in the back row gives the offense added dimensions.
Two years ago, it''s difficult to imagine Cruse would be playing as big a role for the team as she is playing.
"Some people talked me into playing last year and it was complete different than what I expected," Cruse said. "I thought volleyball was six people on the court and you stay in one position. Where you rotated was the spot you played. I got out here and we run plays and we are moving everywhere. It is fun."
It is so fun that Cruse hopes Caledonia can earn a spot in the Class I playoffs. It will have to compete with Region I rivals Ripley, Aberdeen, and West Lowndes,
Judging from how the team has improved in her two seasons, Cruse is confident the Lady Confederates can accomplish that goal and use it to build toward even better things -- even if she won''t be around to be involved.
"Wow. This program could make it really far if they keep improving," Cruse said. "We have improved a lot since last year. I came to watch before I played, and they have improved tremendously. I think in a couple of years they will be extremely good.
"I think we have a chance of making the playoffs this year."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.