Area volleyball programs still playing catchup to Columbus

September 12, 2012 

The Kendrick volleyball team has a record of 7-1 and is ranked No. 9 in Class AA. Shaw is unranked, but it is 15-6 and picked up its first area win, against Banneker, on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Columbus is 9-12, and yet coaches still agree on which team is the standard in the Bi-City area.

"Columbus is very good," Shaw coach Lindsay Dunton said. "Coach (Donna) Fleming has done a great, great job with that program."

"Columbus is one of the real elite teams," Kendrick coach Sterling Hicks said.

The Lady Blue Devils have been a standard of excellence in the area since they began their program nearly 10 years ago. They advanced to the Class AAA semifinals last season, the finals in 2010, won the state title in 2008 and lost in the semifinals in 2007.

When it advanced to the state tournament with an impressive record in its first season as a varsity program, Columbus learned quickly that good in one specific area didn't mean good at the state level.

"We thought we were good," Fleming said. "We

thought we were good, and then we played at state and realized these teams were on a whole different level."

So Fleming set out to build her program as the best in the state had, by playing more matches against more difficult competition. It may mean more losses during the regular season, she said, but it also meant more preparation for the part of the season that really matters.

"It's important to play those good teams, even if you lose," she said. "It helps you learn where your weaknesses are and what to work on for the playoffs."

The strategy worked, and tradition was born. Now, other teams in the area are trying to follow suit.

Like Columbus, Shaw has played an extensive schedule thus far in 2012.

Both teams have played 21 matches, and Dunton said that she makes a point to schedule matches outside of the Bi-City area for most weekends.

"I try to take them out of the area just to see the competition elsewhere," she said. "If you're going to win in the state playoffs, you have to be able to beat statewide competition."

Not that the competition within its area is weak. On the contrary, it is up against Columbus and Class AAAA No. 1 Sandy Creek, which it battled to a 2-1 loss on Tuesday.

While Dunton clarified that her team didn't exactly go "toe-to-toe" with Sandy Creek, the performance in the match was a sign that, perhaps, Shaw is picking up steam in its area and on a state level.

"I think that second game gave them a lot of confidence," said Dunton, referring to a 27-25 win in which Shaw had trailed at one point, 11-6.

"We could have given up, but we kept pushing. The closer we got, the more we believed."

And, as Fleming also indicated, even losses like that do a lot to prepare a team for the state playoffs.

Dunton agreed.

"The harder your area is, the better prepared you are for the state tournament," Dunton said.

"We see some of the best teams in the state during the season. Hopefully that makes a difference in the playoffs."

For Kendrick's coach Hicks, he is simply hoping success breeds more success.

It's tradition, he said, that Columbus has, and that every team around the area is trying to build.

"They built that tradition up when they started their program," he said of the Lady Blue Devils.

"The kids understand they're playing on a state title contender, not just an average team. That's our goal. That's where we're trying to get."

There's still a sizeable gap between Columbus and other teams in the Bi-City area, but Shaw and Kendrick, as well as other teams like Harris County, which has beaten Shaw twice already this season, are on their way up.

"I told them (Tuesday night) that I don't want them settling for winning a game," Dunton said.

"It's a stepping stone, but I don't want them to be content. I want them to keep pushing and make a run in the state tournament."

David Mitchell, 706-571-8571

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