The Peach Belt Conference preseason poll has the GRU Augusta volleyball team predicted to finish dead last in the league, but the Jaguars aren’t buying it.
After a disappointing 8-25 (2-16 PBC) season in 2013 the Jaguars return seven starters. The young team will lean heavy on its two senior outside hitters, Maggie Darling and preseason All-Conference player Kristen Koch, for help in returning to the conference tournament after missing the cut for the first time in five years last season.
In 2013 Koch topped the PBC in kills (406), finished third in assists (24) and fifth in blocks (30). Darling led the squad in aces with 24 and had a team best 427 digs the previous year.
Sharon Quarles, the sixth year head coach, said she and her players haven’t dwelled on last year’s shortcomings but still remembers the key lessons learned.
“When you’re going through those tough times you learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about each other, but at the end of the day when the last few matches were being played (my players) were still battling,” Quarles said. “We just had some holes we needed to fill with this year’s squad, (and) the recruiting actually helped that.”
Some of the weak spots Quarles said she addressed was stabilizing the setter position. As a part of the 2014 recruiting class the teamed signed freshmen Sadie Thurston from Ponte Verde, Fla., and junior-transfer from the State College of Florida, Alyssa Latham, to tag along with sophomore setter McKenna Heath.
“The setter is like the quarterback of the team,” Quarles said. “They set the tempo of the offense. They control the pace and speed of the game. And basically there the floor leaders.”
All together the Jaguars brought in five new players and Quarles said all of them have showed promise.
“We had a very good recruiting class,” she said. “Anyone of those kids can definitely step in and fit the bill. The good thing is they’re all stepping up and everyday they’re battling, so it should be interesting to see who is in the starting lineup come next week.”
And the Jaguars are not only competing hard in practice for playing time, but also developing team chemistry, Koch said.
“We’re working really well together,” she said. “We’re starting to build trust, how each other plays and when somebody gets down what to do to build them back up.”
Koch admitted she feels pressure to perform at a high level after being selected as a part of the preseason All-Conference team. However, the outside hitter said she plays her best under pressure and the added attention will only cause her to work harder.
Before running off to go warm up with front court partner Koch, Darling said the Jaguars have made big improvements in their game over the off-season, and the Peach Belt is underestimating them.
“I think they’re going to be surprised by the time we start playing,” Darling said about the PBC coaches expecting the Jaguars to finish 10th in the conference. “I’d say everyone is just threw with the past and ready to play some games this year.”
The Jaguars begin the 2014 campaign with a tournament at the Queens Invitational in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 5-6.