Jeff Hurndon Photography
Eagles’s Landing Christian senior outside hitter Rachel Tolleson is one of the reasons the Chargers are ranked No. 3 in the state in Class AA/A.
Jonesboro and Eagle’s Landing Christian come from different sides of the volleyball net in more ways than they will tonight when they meet at 6 p.m. in McDonough.
The Cardinals may be more athletic, but less experienced — more apt to make technical mistakes, more likely to start slowly and pick up speed as state-tournament time nears.
The Chargers have more year-round players, a little more experience and are more likely to find ways to win when the going gets tough. That explains ELCA’s 14-4 record to Jonesboro's 8-5, but this match will be about more than the numbers.
Both teams have players who can finish at the net. ELCA has one of the best, not just in Georgia, but in the country in 6-foot-1 Mara Green. She is joined by Rachel Tolleson at the top of the Chargerss ammunition catalogue.
“Mara is a special player,” ELCA coach Jim Barlow said Wednesday. “I’ve seen a lot of players in my time and she's as good as anyone who’s come out of the state.”
Jonesboro counters with Alexcia Cross and Jasmine Mitchell, but is still feeling a bit of the experience void created when Taylor Dowdell graduated and went to junior-college powerhouse Miami-Dade and Jennifer Evans got a scholarship to Albany State.
“They were our leaders, the ones who propelled the other girls to play on a level they didn’t know they could play on,” Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman said.
The Chargers have gotten the better of the rivalry — Barlow calls it that, while Maehlman isn't sure the Cardinals have lived up to their end recently. ELCA has won the last four meetings, dating to 2008.
The way Jonesboro plays against ELCA today may reveal a lot about how quickly it will round into tournament form, which Maehlman is convinced it can.
“Sometimes it takes me until the end of September or the beginning of October, before we learn how to pass, where our setters need to go and where we need to be defensively,” he said. “We make so many small mistakes, we can’t beat the good teams. I’m not saying we might not. Last year, we started off slow before we made it to the elite eight and lost to the No. 1 team in the state in Pope.”
That’s because Jonesboro's roster is made up of girls who play a lot of basketball year-round. Basketball skills translate well to volleyball, — girls are able to play more above the net in that sport — but the nuances are what make a difference when playing quality competition. And if it's one thing Maehlman knows to expect when playing ELCA, it's quality competition.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry, but as long as I’ve known Jim, he’s always had a really good program over there and they’re somebody we play with us trying to get better,” Maehlman said. “I told Jim, if I could take his defensive girls and play them with my athletes, we’d win the state championship every year.”
The Chargers are playing stronger volleyball at the moment. Both teams have played Northgate and Landmark Christian. ELCA beat both. Jonesboro lost to both.
Both teams have dealt with injuries to their top players. Green suffered an ankle sprain that cost her a week and a half this season, but the Chargers benefitted because they were forced to get younger players some valuable experience.
“Certainly, we're better now that she's back,” Barlow said.
Jonesboro’s Cross broke her spiking hand during the summer playing basketball, and even now can’t be considered at full strength with a pin having been inserted to speed the healing. But she wouldn't miss this one.
“She wants to play,” Maehlman said.
For the girls on both teams who do play year-round and know each other, bragging rights are on the line.
“When the girls know each other from club volleyball and play each other in high school, it’s always a fun match, exciting and athletic,” Barlow said.