August 18, 2010 10:01:00 AM
Ja''Bria Jones twisted her body to make a play.
Playing two steps off the net, the middle blocker reached tentatively with her left hand in an effort to keep the ball alive.
Jones did more than that.
With a flick of her arm, the Columbus High School freshman sealed the deal with one final kill and helped her team defeat West Lowndes 3-2.
But the victory didn''t immediately sink in.
Jones turned and gazed hopefully at coach Shay Ashford with a look that asked, "Did I do all right?"
Jones'' teammates quickly answered that question for her as they rubbed her head and surrounded her to congratulate her for her effort.
"She doesn''t have the confidence to be like, ''OK, I can do this. I need to do that,'' " Ashford said. "I give her kudos for playing. It is her first year, so she is adjusting to everything. She has every opportunity in the world to be one of the best players in the state if she can get that confidence up and learn the game."
The final four points of the match offered a glimpse of what Jones could become. With teammate Youlonda Brown serving, Jones skied for a free ball that hung invitingly over the center of the net and slammed it down to the other side to give Columbus a 14-11 lead in the fifth game. Following a lift by the Lady Falcons, Jones got caught underneath the net to help the Lady Panthers cut the margin to one.
But Jones'' athletic kill on the next play avoided a tie that would have prolonged the match indefinitely and helped Columbus even its record at 1-1.
"They had their ups and their downs, and when they go down they go way down," Ashford said. "I don''t know what goes on in their mind because I am saying, ''You all know you can play. I know you can play better than you''re playing.'' "
But inconsistent play is bound to happen with an inexperienced team that is still learning how to play the game. Ashford, though, is focused on transforming her athletes into volleyball players. Not only was Ashford a standout women''s basketball player at the University of North Alabama, she also was a standout volleyball player and track and field athlete at Tupelo High.
In 2003, she was received the state''s PopStar Award (top girls volleyball player), and was the state''s Gatorade volleyball Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons.
Now in her second season at Columbus, Ashford said the growth of her athletes as volleyball players will take time. She said her players need to invest more of their time into playing volleyball because she knows she has a roster filled with potential.
Her goal in a season that lasts just a little more than three months is to give the players a taste of how good they can be, to teach them a few skills, and to encourage them to keep playing.
"They really like me to fuss at them for some odd reason," Ashford said. "When I am nice and happy and cheery, they play like crap. (I fuss at them) in the huddle. In the huddle it is, ''No, it is down to nitty gritty, we ain''t got time to play.'' "
If that happens, Ashford knows many of her players have the potential to do great things.
West Lowndes coach Bill Gates feels the same way about his team. The Lady Panthers (1-6) showed flashes of improved and inspired play, winning games one and three by scores of 25-20. Unfortunately, things unraveled in games two and four as Columbus rolled to 25-11 and 25-10 wins.
In game two, Columbus looked like a different team. It played with more confidence and didn''t hesitate to try to run an offense. As a result, Bridget McCleod had three kills and Amanda Hill had eight service points. In game four, Zenobia Davis served six consecutive points to help give the Lady Falcons an insurmountable lead.
Those performances, as well as the play of Kameron Carothers, provided a taste of potential Ashford will try to nurture for the rest of the year.
"Once they get in their mind I can be good, I can play multiple sports and still concentrate on different things at different times, we''ll be good," Ashford said. "
When it was playing well, West Lowndes showed a strong service game and a scrappiness that kept balls alive. When they struggled, the Lady Panthers had difficulty making any passes and settled for just getting the ball over the net and not running an offense.
Gates, who has replaced five starters from last season, said his players are still making the transition from junior varsity to varsity. He was pleased with his team''s enthusiasm and energy against Columbus but said the team needs to develop greater consistency if it is going to get better.
"They played their hearts out tonight," Gates said. "These girls who have been on the floor tonight, we have just been muddling along and not playing too well. Tonight was the first night where I have really seen them put it together and really play ball."
Kiana Bridges had seven service points in game one. In game three, Artesia Williams had four service points and Pertrice Sherrod added the final four points of the game, including three aces.
Game five was tied six times, the last at 9-all before a missed West Lowndes kill attempt and a kill by Columbus'' Hill gave the Lady Falcons the lead for good.
While disappointed his team couldn''t capture the fifth game, Gates feels the match gives the players something to build on. He said the players need to maintain their intensity and to develop more consistent serving so not to give away free points.
In the offseason, Gates hopes to find a way to get more of his players involved in camps and in club ball to help them build on what they learn in the high school season.
"If we could do that, we could be right up there with them," Gates said. "The more exposure to it the better we are going to get."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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