CONYERS - The Rockdale volleyball team is looking to continue its steady improvement once again this fall.
Since Stephen Sansing took over the helm of the Lady Bulldogs four years ago, the squad has made a remarkable turnaround, including a trip to the Class AAAA state tournament in 2006.
This season, Sansing expects his squad to be in the state playoff hunt again in Area 8-AAAA.
"Our goal is to finish as one of the top two teams in our subregion, make the state playoffs and win a few matches once we get there," he said. "We missed out last year (on state), and I think the girls realized it's not something that the other teams will give you. We have to work hard for it, and so far they've done what I asked."
Last season, Rockdale posted a 23-21 record and lost to Loganville in the area tournament, falling just a game short of its second straight trip to the state tournament.
The Lady Bulldogs paid a heavy price at graduation, losing Citizen Co-Volleyball Player of the Year Jasmine Lewis, Aniya Strong, Jalisa Thornton and Maleeka Verser.
"Those four were the with me from the beginning, and they are the reason Rockdale volleyball made such a turnaround in the last few years," Sansing said. "They were all three-year starters for me, and it was odd to start the season without them out there. The great thing is they built this program to be able to thrive even after they're gone, and the girls who will be stepping in for each of them are ready to play."
In fact, even with those losses, the Lady Bulldogs still have plenty of talent on their roster. The junior duo of right-side hitter Kelsey Girardot and setter Chelsea Nunn returns this season after being named to the All-Area 8-AAAA team last season as sophomores.
Senior Tayla Mitchell and junior Brianna Dennis are slated to be the middle hitters, while the outside hitters are senior Jasmin Miller and junior Brandie Jenkins.
"Skill-wise, hitting and blocking will be our strengths. We have a lot of height, and we can definitely alter some game plans by getting in the face of the other team," Sansing said. "Chelsea does a great job of getting a hittable set to our hitters. As long as we stay aggressive, we put a lot of pressure on our opponents."
Sansing is also looking for good things from four newcomers to the varsity squad - Taylor Burdette, Jakarrea Mustaf and junior twin sisters Samantha and Stephanie Wood.
"Sophomore Taylor Burdette has won the starting libero job with her work this summer. Senior Jakarrea Mustaf really dedicated herself this summer as well and became someone I can depend on to come in at middle (hitter) and give us some valuable blocking and hitting on the front line," he said. "Twin sisters Samantha and Stephanie Wood will be both counted on as defensive specialists in the back row, with Stephanie being counted on as my super-sub, who can come in for anyone."
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at email@example.com.
SideBar: At a glance
· Team: Rockdale volleyball
· Coach: Stephen Sansing (fifth season)
· Last year's record: 23-21
· Key returning players: Kelsey Girardot, Chelsea Nunn, Tayla Mitchell, Brianna Dennis, Jasmin Miller and Brandie Jenkins
· First matches: Tuesday at Mary Persons