October 25, 2013 11:21:32 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Dig. Slide. Kill. Rotate.
Madison Thrasher and Leigh Atkins admit they would have had a difficult time telling you last year what each of those words meant and how they applied to the sport of volleyball.
A year ago, Thrasher, Atkins, and nearly every member of the New Hope High School volleyball team went through an indoctrination to the sport. There were plenty of players who weren't quick enough to get out of the way of a kill that hit them in the chest or the head. There also were a fair share of times when they attempted a dig, a defensive play that keeps the ball from hitting the ground, and weren't successful.
But the lack of knowledge didn't stop the players from giving their best effort to learn everything they could about the sport.
This year, Thrasher, Atkins, and the rest of the Lady Trojans have learned through repetition. The addition of transfer student Silvia Sartori, who is from Serbia, also has helped New Hope elevate its play so that it no longer resembles the first-year program it was in 2012.
"I just picked it up," Thrasher said. "Last year, I probably knew nothing. I just picked it up as I went along. In our first match against Caledonia, we were like chickens with our heads caught off."
New Hope (12-4) will show how far it has come at 6 p.m. Saturday when it plays host to Lewisburg in the Class II North State semifinals. The winner will advance to play the winner of the Germantown-Lake Cormorant match Tuesday for a chance to play for a state title at 1 p.m. Nov. 2 at Mississippi College in Clinton.
"It is exciting to show people how hard we have worked because we have worked extremely hard to get where we are," Thrasher said.
Last season, New Hope won only two matches and suffered growing pains typical of any new program. Laura Lee Holman, the school's girls basketball coach, also resembled a coach who was learning a sport.
"Last year, our mentality was more of let's just survive this thing," Holman said. "This year, we have taken on a competitive mentality and a mind-set we are going to do whatever it takes to win. If it means staying after practice and get a few more swings in or if it means they have to dive on the floor a couple of more times, or work harder at practice or talk a little more, whatever I have asked them to do they have committed to it."
Holman said the success has pumped her up and has encouraged her to bring the players to camps this summer. Her goal is to show people around the state that the program's success this season isn't a fluke.
"I think I have a group of kids who are just as committed to it as I am now that they understand a little more," Holman said. "I think their success really has stirred the community up. Hopefully, we can take and have a couple of camps for the younger kids. I think this year has really been important for our program. I think there are great things in store for us."
Holman also credits Sartori for being a coach figure the players can turn to for guidance and support.
"Silvia has done such a great job of doing it in such a humbling way that you don't feel it is any kind of criticism," Holman said. "She has a great talent at that, making you feel loved when she is telling you what you are doing wrong. She has been a blessing, for sure. She has taught me a lot, and what she has done for this program, she has advanced this program years to where it might have talent us years to get where we are now. A credit to her for the way she has done it because the kids could have hated her, but I love to watch her walk around and put her arms around a sophomore and say, 'You have to get a little lower.' It has been huge having her leadership. The harder she plays the harder everybody plays."
Thrasher, who anchors the defense, and Atkins, who plays middle blocker, said the Lady Trojans feed off Sartori's energy. Trasher said Sartori's presence has motivated them to work harder so they can get closer to her level. Atkins praised Sartori for working with her to help her play at the net, whether it is blocking or hitting.
"She has taught me so much on my hitting passing -- everything," Atkins said. "She is good at it."
Even though New Hope's game has a little more polish to it, the players and Holman don't want to lose the "scrappy" reputation they have earned. The Lady Trojans' defensive play has enabled them to stay in points and make opponents earn everything. Sartori's ability at the net has given them a hitter who can intimidate and dominate.
As a result, Thrasher said the success has enhanced the learning environment and made things a little easier for the second-year program to compete and to win the Class II, Region 2, District 6 title.
"I know more of what I am doing this year," Thrasher said. "I know where I need to be. I learned what a dig was and what it is supposed to look like.
"Winning gives you encouragement to know you are actually able to win. We know we have standards to live up to now," Thrasher said. "Last year, our goal was to win a game. This year, our goal was to go to state and win. We know we have people to impress."
That is an entirely different approach from last season, when Atkins said the team "just kind of went with the flow. She said everything the players have learned has made them more confident. She is an ideal example. Following the high school season, she became a member of Mississippi Juniors, a local volleyball club coached by former Mississippi State coach Tina Seals.
Atkins credits Holman for encouraging them and pushing them to get better. She said a victory against Heritage Academy motivated the team to improve despite its inexperience.
Holman said Thrasher and Atkins have played key roles with Sartori in helping to create a positive atmosphere in which a lack of knowledge isn't a bad thing.
"They both have really worked hard to get better," Holman said. "Madison has played a great role on defense. Leigh has really come a long way blocking and hitting. She stays a lot after practice and works on getting better. Both of them raising their game has been a part of our success."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino in Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.