August 7, 2014 11:25:19 AM
The New Hope High School volleyball team's lessons will have to continue this year without one of its best teachers.
A year ago, Serbian exchange student Silvia Sartori played a pivotal role in pushing a second-year program within two victories of a state championship. Along the way, the 6-foot-1 multi-talented player, who was named The Dispatch's All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year, helped educate New Hope High coach Laura Lee Holman and the Lady Trojans about how to play the game. Sartori didn't do it with a loud voice, though. She encouraged and worked with her new teammates and she talked with Holman, the school's girls basketball coach, about strategy and drills the team could do to get better.
As New Hope prepares to open its season Saturday at a tournament in New Albany, Sartori's lessons are living on even if she isn't there to oversee them.
"There have been a couple of times I have looked around the gym and wondered, 'Where is she?' " Holman said. "Before, we had to kind of do it by trial and error. Last year, Silvia could kind of look at me and say, 'No.' She helped us cut some corners with her knowledge. I do feel that we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we usually have been two days before our first match. I think we have done a good job getting them ready."
Sartori was proud to play a role in helping New Hope win Region 2, District 6 and beating Lewisburg 3-2 in the state playoffs. She had 37 kills, including seven in the fifth set, against Lewisburg to help the program earn its first playoff victory in front of a raucous home crowd. A 3-0 loss to Lake Cormorant ended the season at, but it didn't diminish the growth Sartori, who will play volleyball at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, saw from her teammates and the team.
To a player, the Lady Trojans praised the example Sartori set last season. They hope they can carry on success the program achieved last season, even though they know they likely will have to do it as an underdog.
"I don't know if we have to prove Silvia right because she always has supported us," junior Madison Thrasher said. "I think it is like everyone else because we definitely were the underdogs. We have a lot to prove to a lot more people than just Silvia, especially this year."
Said senior Leigh Atkins, "We just have to communicate a lot. I feel we are as strong as when (Silvia) was here because we still have the communication and the friendships. We are all so close. We did lose a couple of players last year, but this is a new year and we will start fresh and keep playing hard."
New Hope also will have to replace Ashley Martian and Mercedes Mattix from a squad that hustled and played solid defense. It also relied on Sartori to carry a big load on offense. Holman hopes the time the team spent working together in the summer helps more individuals emerge as contributors. She said the varsity team will have three or four new players this season and that chemistry will be a key ingredient to duplicating last season's run. She said if someone wasn't there or made a mistake, she said a Lady Trojan would be there to pick her teammate up. She feels that mind-set will be even more important this season without Sartori.
"Not one time have I had to stop and tell them, 'She is not here,'" Holman said. "I kind of was afraid that that might be the conversation I am having the varsity, which is, 'You're going to have to take that shot because she is not here.' Silvia made us all play -- and made me coach -- at a level that might have taken us years to get to. I think taking that and realizing the role she played and them being eager to step up and say, 'Hey, I want to be Silvia.' Putting the kids in position to take those shots. I think they have done a really good job of stepping up."
Seniors Abbi Wilson, Kayla Smith, Tiffany Proctor, and Atkins hope to lead the way. Atkins, who played with Sartori in the front row last season, hopes she can shoulder the responsibility of being one of the team's primary hitters. She said she learned a lot working with Sartori and feels she is hitting better and harder than she did last season.
"I feel like we have learned so much more this year, too, so we're just going to keep moving forward and improving," Atkins said. "I feel the coach has learned what she taught us and we have learned so much that she taught us that we can improve and do better.
"There is pressure to do as good as we did last year, but I think that we will improve and, hopefully, make it to the state tournament this year."
Atkins said the improvement of players like Darion Bradley will help New Hope be more versatile. Bradley acknowledges the Lady Trojans depended a lot on Sartori last season, but she said the team is ready to rely on the knowledge Sartori left with them to make an impact this season.
"She was a great role model," Bradley said of Sartori. "She taught me the game of volleyball. I learned how to play back row and front row and how to serve. She pushed me to do more. I just love the sport more than I did at first because of her.
"When we had a bad practice, she was always there to support us and pat us on the back. She was a team leader because she knew more about the game than us put together. She was always there to give us encouragement. We're still a great team. We have a lot of goals for ourselves this year. We want to go back to where we were and go further than we were. I think we just believe in ourselves because we know what it feels like to win a game and going to North Half. We just want to go back there and win a championship."
New Hope will play Potts Camp at 3:15 p.m. and New Albany at 6:15 p.m. Saturday.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.