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Mount Zion volleyball sets sight on winning season

Photo by Brian Paglia / Mount Zion sophomore Tatiania Screven lunges for the ball in a drill during practice Wednesday.

Photo by Brian Paglia / Mount Zion sophomore Tatiania Screven lunges for the ball in a drill during practice Wednesday.

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Photo by Brian Paglia / Lady Bulldogs sophomore Kaeonna Hobbs patrols the middle for Mount Zion, which is 17-16 heading into the Conyers Ampfest, a tournament at Heritage High School, this weekend.

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Photo by Brian Paglia / “We’re a completely better team,” Mount Zion junior outside hitter Chelsae Bryant said.

JONESBORO — When the Georgia High School Association juggled teams in its latest reclassification, Mount Zion volleyball coach Earl Simmonds wasn’t pleased. The teams the Lady Bulldogs joined in Area 4-AAAAA were a list of playoff contenders — McIntosh, Ola, Starr’s Mill, Union Grove and Whitewater. Mount Zion seemed squeezed out of playoff status by default.

But something funny happened. Mount Zion joined a stronger area than a year ago, when the Lady Bulldogs went 13-19, but got better. Mount Zion seemed relegated to doormat status, and yet it’s chugging along at 17-16 as it heads into the Conyers Ampfest tournament at Heritage High School in Conyers this weekend.

“I’m proud of the girls,” Simmonds said. “We’re improving.”

Mount Zion’s record may look different, but its roster looks familiar.

That’s because the Lady Bulldogs returned virtually its entire roster from last season. And they have just one senior this year.

“We’re still very young,” Simmonds said.

Last season’s leaders of that struggling team are this season’s standouts on a dangerous squad — sophomore middle hitter Kaeonna Hobbs, junior outside hitter Chelsae Bryant and junior Ashante Finnie.

Simmonds said match after match together has started to have an impact.

“They were freshmen and sophomores last year,” Simmonds said. “Now they’re juniors and seniors. They’ve been playering together longer. It’s just getting that experience together.”

“We’re a completely better team,” Bryant said. “Better attitude. The volleyball IQ is a lot higher than it’s been in a long time.”

Mount Zion will put that volleyball IQ to the test this weekend at the Ampfest tournament. It’s a chance for the Lady Bulldogs to test their progress against teams from other counties, a test Mount Zion relishes after going 10-2 against teams from Clayton County this season.

Simmonds scheduled Mount Zion to play in this weekend’s tournament to get the Lady Bulldogs ready for the Clayton County championships next weekend and the Area 4-AAAAA tournament, where McIntosh, Ola and company will be waiting.

“If you want to get to state and actually compete, you’ll meet those kinds of teams,” Simmonds said. “I don’t believe in creampuff schedules.”

The impact has been most evident this time of the season.

Last season, the Lady Bulldogs collapsed losing 10 of their final 11 matches. Mount Zion enters Ampfest having won three of its last four.

Then there was Mount Zion’s victory over Jonesboro on Sept. 10. It was the first time in 10 years the Lady Bulldogs had beaten the Lady Cardinals.

“That was the most memorable win of the season,” Bryant said. “We played together. We communicated, we worked together and we moved quick enough.”