Like all other schools around the state, the Apalachee volleyball team is having to navigate the unknowns and uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic and play amid the lingering possibility that any match could be their last of the season.
But long-time Wildcat head coach Joey Alfonso is trying to remind his team that all it can control is what happens “today.”
“This whole situation has led to some apathy because of not knowing whether we’ll have a full season, which is fair to some degree,” said Alfonso, whose team went 2-2 in its opening weekend of play on Saturday. “But our goal is just to push them and say, ‘Yes, we don’t know about tomorrow, but we can be sure we’re prepared for today and be the best we can be.’ I think they’ve handled it well. They’re getting their temperatures taken every day before practice or a match. They’re wearing their mask everywhere. I think we’ve got a good chance (of getting the season in); we’ve just got to be smart about it.”
The Apalachee team itself will have a few unknowns as the Wildcats are having to replace a few key seniors off last year’s team, including Alfonso’s daughter Ellie, who was one of the top players in the state and helped lead the team to 97 wins and back-to-back region titles the last two years.
Alfonso saw mixed results Saturday at Dacula High School as his team played four straight matches and opened with a 2-0 win against West Forsyth (27-25, 25-22), lost a big lead in a 2-1 loss to Archer (25-17, 24-26, 13-15), rallied to beat Dacula (18-25, 25-15, 15-13), and then were shut out by Athens Academy (21-25, 21-25).
The Archer loss was particularly frustrating for the Wildcats coach as they led the second set 24-13 before giving up 13 straight points and letting it slip away. Alfonso subbed heavily in that second set, he said, to get some of his varsity newcomers some needed experience.
“We would have liked to have gone 3-1 and that’s one we should have one, but it wasn’t a bad day at all and maybe we learned some valuable lessons,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge. We’ve got seven seniors but 15 girls on the team. That’s a huge bench, but our philosophy is to make sure we’re training that next group so next year is not as a big of a drop-off. Our success is built on having four pretty solid players every year so we’ve got some work to do to keep that going.”
Leading the charge for Apalachee this year is senior outside hitter Emily Crocker, who had 442 kills and 64 aces last fall and got off the 2020 campaign off to a strong start Saturday, registering 43 kills and a pair of aces and three blocks and going 22-of-24 on her serves.
“She’s a stud and she makes it look easy,” Alfonso said of Crocker. “She’s got goals this year and she’s one we’re really looking toward to leading the team and helping keep the girls focused on what we can control.”
Senior middle hitter Kassidy Dell (12 kills, two aces, 12 blocks on Saturday) and senior libero Kayla Vang also return with starting experience, while senior hitter Jenna Crow (45-of-48 on serves, 21 kills, seven aces) and senior defensive specialist Abby Bowles (34-of-39, six aces, 37 assists) will be expected to take on more prominent roles in the lineup.
Alfonso has also been impressed with freshman setter/right-side hitter Megan Crocker (Emily’s younger sister), who made her impact felt right away, going 35-of-39 with eight kills and seven aces, while junior Julianna Agbenou is still relatively new to the sport but is showing promise in the middle at the net, her coach said.
How quickly and well those players progress will dictate whether or not the Wildcats can earn a third straight region crown after moving down to Class 5A. Region 8-AAAAA is already likely down one school for the season as Newton County schools have indefinitely suspended all fall sports, putting Eastside High School of Covington on hiatus.
Among the other teams joining the Wildcats in the new region are Greenbrier (which also moved down from 6A and could be considered the favorite, Alfonso said), Jackson County (a Final Four team in 3A last season) and Loganville (a playoff regular). Walnut Grove, Clarke Central and Johnson-Gainesville round out the region slate.
“A couple years ago when we went 53-4, we beat McIntosh, the 5A state champion, so if you had asked me then about moving down, I would have loved it,” Alfonso said. “But we’re not that team. We’re hoping to be a solid, competitive team. But when you look at the last two years, when we’ve had maybe the two best teams in school history, we’re a little bit below that right now.”