By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Staff
For the first time in many years, the Cherokee Lady Braves varsity volleyball team is having a winning season, and players and coaches are attributing much of that success to positive attitudes and a can-do work environment. Following a 3-1 victory (25-23, 28-26, 22-25, 25-13) over Highlands at home on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 16, the Lady Braves sit at 7-4 overall (2nd in the Smoky Mountain Conference) and are riding a five-game winning streak.
Pam Bryant, second-year Lady Braves head coach, noted, “The biggest piece is they are just competitors. They just do not quit. Their overall feel right now is they have a mentality of ‘let’s just go out, let’s get the job done and then go on about our business’. They’re very focused even for them to be so young because we’re 10 players and we have three freshman, four sophomores, and three seniors. So, they just don’t quit. They just keep going. It’s probably one of the neatest team settings I’ve ever been a part of because they are just in it to win it and they don’t quit.”
She said the team has been responding well to practice and training. “I think it’s the matter of these girls needed to believe in themselves. I feel like they’re believing in themselves and they’re believing in what they can do. They’re just wanting to be better and better every day. It goes in practice…they come out every day. They don’t slack, they just go.”
And, that work ethic is paying off.
Following a loss to undefeated Murphy, who sits atop the SMC at the moment, on Aug. 31, the Lady Braves have been on a tear with five wins in a row including a win over Andrews on Sept. 7 which represented their first SMC victory in a decade. During that span, Cherokee’s wins included: 3-0 over Erwin, 3-1 over Andrews, 3-2 over Hayesville, 3-0 over Swain Co., and 3-1 over Highlands.
“They trust each other, and that’s a huge piece when it comes to volleyball,” said Coach Bryant. “They’re starting to learn how to communicate – especially when they’re young, they’re learning how to do that. But, they have a trust for each other. They’re disciplined. They’re disciplined to know that person should be there, this person should be there. It comes down, literally, to just trusting each other and trusting what their responsibility is and then what the team responsibility is.”
She said that the team’s fundamental strength is defense. “We’re scrappy. I tell the girls all the time that we’re the smallest team we’re probably ever going to come up against. But, they’ve got some fight in them. So, defense-wise that was one of the focuses coming into this season. We knew, as a coaching staff, we were going to have to get the defense piece because we were going to have people who are going to hit over us.”
Donna Thompson, senior labero, is elated to be a part of this year’s team. “Our coach has really made a big difference and we have to do a lot more at practice than before. Hustling, if a dropped ball happens then we do burpees. Serves were a big thing – if we missed a serve, we had to do a consequence. It’s a lot of self-punishment. Very big difference on that.”
She has also noticed one big difference this season. “Our attitudes – that’s a big change, too. Before, our past teams had bad attitudes and would get mad at teammates during the game which would just affect how we played.”
Thompson said she has worked hard to improve her defensive skills including passing the ball on hard-driven spikes and serve-receive.
She is happy to see everyone’s hard work paying off, “It feels good, it really does. Senior year, you know. I haven’t really won any games in volleyball, we haven’t won anything since I played since 8th grade. So, it’s been a really good senior year and really good to get the experience of winning and all the good memories.”
Coach Bryant said the Lady Braves are a very coachable team. “They’re smart players. They put the ball where they need to. And the cool thing that’s happening now is they’re learning the volleyball IQ. They’re learning about the game. It’s more than just a pass, set, and hit. They’re starting to learn volleyball IQ of how to strategize against other teams.”
Aria Foerst, senior middle hitter, said, “Being on this team is honestly an honor. I haven’t ever been on a team that’s so close and so tight. We’re just a family now. I’ve also never had this kind of bond with people before on a team. That’s probably one of the main reasons we’re winning all the time is because we never give up. And, those girls never quit. Those girls play their hearts out on the court. Off the court, they are amazing athletes and students. They always bring positive attitudes. They’re always on their best behavior.”
She was excited about her senior year but noted, “I think, we didn’t know what we were going into this season. We didn’t know the outcome. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We just sort of started winging it and hoped for the best and it got us somewhere! We started playing actual volleyball and not just going out thinking ‘oh we’re already going to lose’. We actually have that momentum of wanting to win all the time. I love this team to death. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m just glad I got to experience this my senior year.”
It’s that teamwork that is the largest difference Foerst noted. “We’ve come a long way from where we were just at summer workouts to now. We play a lot better together. We get our passes down, we get our feet set, we move quicker to the ball. We move more quickly as a team too. We’ve never really just dove after the ball. We wouldn’t do that years before but now we do that. So, we have that part on our side as well. I think that’s awesome.”
One aspect not lost on this team is appreciation, and Foerst commented, “Our fans are absolutely the biggest support system we’ve ever had for volleyball.”
Prior to Thursday’s home game against Highlands, Foerst said, “We could go out in this game and lose, we could go out in this game and win, but no matter what we still have our fans and Cherokee supporting us the entire time.”
Well, they won.