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VOLLEYBALL PREVIEW: Despite title, ELCA embracing underdog role

Photo by Brian Paglia / Eagle’s Landing Christian first-year volleyball coach Katrina Hegeman is tasked with leading the Lady Chargers after the program’s first-ever state championship.

Photo by Brian Paglia / Eagle’s Landing Christian first-year volleyball coach Katrina Hegeman is tasked with leading the Lady Chargers after the program’s first-ever state championship.

Four teams to watch

ELCA

The Chargers have a 37-7 season that included the program’s first ever volleyball state championship to live up to. Despite losing five starters, ELCA has a mixture of talent that should make them a team to reckon with by the end of the regular season.

Jonesboro

Clayton County’s premier volleyball program is coming off a 25-17 season and another state tournament appearance. The Lady Cardinals will miss the graduation of Alexcia Cross and Jasmine Mitchell.

Union Grove

The Lady Wolverines return five seniors and a couple young pieces off a team that went 33-13 and lost in the Class AAAA second round. Union Grove should be the area’s top contender in a tough area with returning state champion Whitewater.

Woodland

A team coming off a second round appearance in Class AAA and 26-16 record should be the favorite in Area 4-AAAA, especially with five returning seniors.

Before Eagle’s Landing Christian won its first ever volleyball state championship, there was crying.

On the first day of practice, one player left so emotional from fear of what she thought looked like a team that just wouldn’t be good. She called Adria King to persuade her away from playing softball because the volleyball team was so bereft of talent.

“She was like, ‘Adria, please. We have nobody,’” King remembered.

A couple months later, the Lady Chargers celebrated with a euphoric dogpile after defeating Greater Atlanta Christian in the state title match.

When practices officially began August 1, there was no crying this time. Despite all the challenges faced with the role of reigning champs — the transition to a new coach, the loss of five starters and the infusion of young talent — ELCA is embracing a role that feels all too familiar.

“We were underestimated last year,” King said. “We went into the year and really our only goal as a Christian team was to grow.”

“Last year, nobody thought we’d win state,” sophomore Bre Laney said. “Nobody thought we’d even get to state.”

Now, the Lady Chargers will likely enter the season with a No. 1 ranking in Class A. But they won’t enter the season with a dangerous Division I hitter for the first time in almost three seasons.

Mara Green and Lauren Teknipp helped lead ELCA to prominence, and when Teknipp graduated in 2011 and signed with Michigan, Green followed to lead a veteran team with five seniors to the state title. Green signed with Florida State.

Now it’s first-year head coach Katrina Hegeman’s job to put together another contender with a cast of new faces.

King, Laney and junior hitter Marissa Randolph return. Freshmen Lynnlee Mather and Malia Randolph enter the program with significant hype, while Hegeman said sophomore Brittney Warren should be one of the top liberos in the area.

“We have high expectations,” Hegeman said. “I think we’ve met the highest one, so now we just want to keep that tradition going. I think it’s nice because the girls know what it takes to get to that level, which is a neat feeling. Not a lot of teams get to experience that.”

Not a lot of teams have to replace a Division I talent like Green, who commanded attention from opponents but was such a reliable source of scoring. Her graduation leaves the Lady Chargers an opportunity to remake its offense.

“We’re just going to have to mix it up,” said Laney, a right-side hitter. “We have good hitters on the team. Our middles are big. Lynnlee is big, and Marissa can jump. I think we can hopefully balance it out.”

Indeed, ELCA is trying to strike a balance between embracing the expectations of becoming a state championship program and the reality of the Lady Chargers’ roster turnover.

“I think rebuilding starting young will be a challenge,” Hegeman said, “but we’re still aiming for the gold. They’re working hard. We’re trying to figure out what it’s going to take to get there.”