Head coach: Candice Crenshaw
2020 Record: 17-19, 5-5
2020 Results: No. 3 in Region 8-AAA, Lost in first round of AAA State Playoffs
2020 Stat Leaders
Mya Howard, Sr: 162 kills, 194 digs
Keely Shultz, Fr.: 132 kills, 50 aces, 197 digs
Alannah Padilla, So.: 55 aces, 209 digs
Allison Lounder, Jr.: 54 aces, 180 digs
Zoe Daniels, Sr.: 35 blocks
Abby Pennington, So.: 182 digs
Teams to Beat
Hart County 23-11, 9-1: No. 2 in Region 8-AAA, lost in first round of AAA State Playoffs
Stephens County 7-19, 5-5: No. 4 in Region 8-AAA, lost in first round of AAA State Playoffs
East Jackson and head coach Candice Crenshaw were dealt a bad hand in 2020. The pandemic made what was already a transition year even more of a hassle.
Crenshaw, at risk of sounding too negative, called last year difficult.
"I think it wore on some people," she said. Crenshaw went on to call the offseason a much needed break. Though it wasn't a very long break for the players, many of whom play club volleyball. When the team reunited in the summer, Crenshaw noticed the girls were ready for the upcoming season.
Why wouldn't they be? The Eagle's return most of their best statistical players from a team which finished third in the Region 8-AAA standings, four games behind second-place Hart County. That includes rising sophomore Keely Shultz who registered 132 kills, 50 aces and 197 digs in her first high school season.
“We have great potential this year, it’s nice to have these girls coming back that were leaders, statistically, last year," she said. "I’m looking forward to them playing and trying to mesh. It’s always hard to take over a program and last year was a big transition for a lot of us. So this year we have got are feet under us and we hope to come out and play really well and give everyone some really good competition.”
East Jackson isn't necessarily shooting for the stars. Region 8-AAA is very top heavy with perennial sweet-16 program Oconee County positioned at the top. But as it pertains to the region standings, there's one team on all of the girls' radar: Hart County. A win over the Bulldogs could help East Jackson secure the No. 2 seed going into the Region 8-AAA Tournament.
The Eagles haven't defeated the Bulldogs since September 25, 2019. Hart County knocked East Jackson out of the region tournament in 2019 and 2020. The animosity is warranted.
"I really want Hart County," said senior Allison Lounder. "They've been our biggest matchup. It's my senior year and I've never beat Hart County so I really want to beat them."
Beyond wanting to take down their rivals, East Jackson is happy to play in a region full of stout volleyball programs. Junior Abby Pennington said it best:
The difficulty is good for us. It pushes us to be a better team and to be the best version of our team.”
Coach Crenshaw explained what makes Region 8-AAA such a good volleyball region.
“They’ve got great coaches and the players have been playing for a while," she said. "Most of them are club players and that translates well to the high school game. It’s one of those things where all you can do is get in there and play the best ball you can play. I hope we can finish higher than third, but getting to go to state is always a nice treat for our girls.”
Closing the gap
The players returning from last year give East Jackson volleyball a good foundation entering 2021, especially since most of those players were a real force on the backline. Alannah Padilla, Shultz, Lounder and Pennington all had at least 180 digs last season. Crenshaw credits the Eagle's solid defensive work to the their fundamentals which they've had to develop to make up for their lack of height.
East Jackson's other strength is service. Padilla, Lounder and Schultz each had at least 50 aces last year and Pennington added 35.
The real challenge is replacing the hitting production of Mya Howard who had 162 kills as a senior in 2020. Crenshaw believes she has the talent to plug into the front line, starting with Shultz. who Crenshaw says is capable of placing the ball wherever she wants when she hits it. To further rebuild the front line, some players have had to change positions, including Lounder.
Among the players, the biggest aspect of the game they've had to work on this summer is serve receive. Every player mentions serve receive when asked. Schultz explained why it's been such an issue for the Eagles.
“serve receive is quite hard at the beginning of the season because we do have a bunch of freshmen," she said. "Not as many of them played serve receives as hard as what we’re playing this year. It’s different serves coming from JV to varsity. So you’re having to work harder to understand serve receive.”
Lounder describes the work that has gone in to improving service receptions:
“Serve receive is the biggest part of the game and we’ve been pushing it all summer. You can’t win a game without serve receive. We’ve been serving at each other all day. Even when we're not serving, we'll get out and pass each other serves. It's a lot of repetition."
Beyond hitting and serve receive, perhaps the biggest task this offseason has been the merger of what says its two teams.
"We have our core group back, but we lost a lot of hitters," she said. "We lost our three best hitters from last year. We have a lot of freshmen, they all have talent, they all play club. It’s going to be interesting because there are two groups... You have returners and then the freshmen. We’re trying to merge right now."
Players to watch
Keeley Shultz, So.: Shultz had a fantastic freshman campaign, finishing the year second on the team with 132 kills and ranking high up the stat sheet with 50 aces and 197 digs.
“She’s a strong hitter, she loves the game really understands it," Crenshaw said. "On the court, she knows what’s going on. She’s outstandingly strong. She hits the ball really hard and can put it where she wants it.”
Allison Lounder, Sr.: Louder is excellent from the back row where she dug out 180 balls and scored 54 aces last season. Because of her senior leadership, experience and how she sees the court, Crenshaw called Louder the quarterback of the team. Because of that, Lounder will play as a hitter often this year.
Alannah Padilla, Jr.: Matching Louder's backline production is Padilla. She ended the 2020 season with 209 digs and 55 aces. Not many players can make something out of nothing the way Padilla can.
“A really strong libero," Crenshaw said. "She’s scrappy, she can move around to get to the ball and get the ball up when some people would struggle.”
Abby Pennington, Jr.: Further bolstering the backline is Pennington who made 182 digs in 2020. Crenshaw says Pennington plays the court well and that she knows where to put the ball.