Coach Robin Richards remembers Commerce High School’s first-ever practice on June 24. That day, players began learning how to serve … on a tennis court.
“We had to do it outside on the tennis court, which is actually five feet longer than a volleyball court and the net is way lower … only two girls could serve the ball,” Richards said.
Much has happened since then for the first-year team.
Commerce is now playing its first varsity matches — the team began play Aug. 11 against Franklin County and Madison County — and ushering in a new sport at the Class A school.
And those serves are traveling at a much more successful rate now over an actually volleyball net.
Richards has used those days of volleyball infancy in June as a rallying point for his players with the season upon them.
“I just said, ‘Think back to those days and think about now, and you have grown tremendously,’” Richards said. “‘You have evolved tremendously compared to where you were.’”
Richards said there’d been a push from a group of parents to bring volleyball to Commerce, but the school finally gained the numbers to make it happen. Last year, 52 students — albeit before COVID-19 hit — expressed interest in trying out for the squad.
Richards, whose coaching experience prior to Commerce was building an academic team powerhouse at Cedar Shoals (where he won state titles), agreed to become the program’s first head coach after learning he’d have good help. One of the players’ parents, Wendy Osborne, is a club coach who could handle the instructive side, allowing Richards tend to administrative duties.
“It’s been kind of a nice arrangement, like a coaching-by-committee thing,” said Richards, who noted that he also spearheads team conditioning.
Nineteen high schoolers from the original group of 52 (that total included middle schoolers) showed up on the first day of tryouts in June. Pretty much anyone who was there and willing to put forth the effort made the team, according to Richards.
“For the most part, you were already in,” he said. “That part was easy.”
Conditioning and optional clinics followed over course of the next few weeks. The team then received tangible signs that volleyball was actually around the corner when uniforms, nets and other equipment arrived.
“It kind of built up their morale when I would show them all this new stuff,” Richards said.
Though the game is still brand-new to most of the roster, the Tigers do have two players with experience — Abbi Osborne and Rain Kennerly — and the team has uncovered talents among its many newcomers to the sport. Richards pointed in particular to senior Alicyn Lewis, who he said “is a very powerful server” and a “secret weapon” for the squad.
“That’s kind of the fun part about all of this,” Richards said. “Nobody knows anything about us.”
He added, “We’re this huge question mark.”
Meanwhile, Richards said the senior class, many of which have waited a long time to play volleyball, is a particularly motivated group “because this their one year.”
“The seniors have really bought into it, an then by extension everybody else is buying into it,” Richards said.
Commerce, which continues its schedule Aug. 18 against Cedar Shoals and West Hall (at Cedar Shoals), will play its first home matches on Aug. 25 against Cedar Shoals and Oglethorpe County in what Richards said will be a milestone moment for the program.
“That is probably when it’s going to really hit me that we have a team,” he said.
Commerce opens area play Sept. 8 against Putnam County and Oglethorpe County. The Tigers will compete in a 10-team league with three other first-year programs.
Richards said he’s calling this inaugural Commerce volleyball team the “unknown underdogs.” He said this group may surprise people.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “I’m ready to be surprised — pleasantly surprised.”