By Trey Williams
Forgive Unicoi County volleyball coach Shelley Swinehart if she’s a bit defensive these days.
The Blue Devils are replacing four seniors from last year’s team, leaving a gaping void in the defense. Swinehart sees it as a tailor-made coaching opportunity.
“We changed our defense up to fit the athletes that we have,” Swinehart said. “They’ve worked really hard this summer, having to step up into some defensive roles. We’re having to pretty much start from scratch with defense and service receive.”
Junior Shelby Miller possesses the lion’s share of back-row seasoning. She was an all-conference selection as a sophomore.
“Shelby played all the way around last year,” Swinehart said. “We’re looking to her to be one of our big offensive weapons.”
Sophomore Olivia Bailey will transition to setter this season.
“I’ve talked to her about just kind of taking charge of the offense and learning how to communicate with your hitters so each knows what to expect,” Swinehart said. “That’s a new role for her, but I really believe she can do it because she does have a commanding presence about her. I told her, ‘You’re a person that can say (instructions) to someone and people not be offended by it.’ They would say, ‘Okay, Olivia, I gotcha.’”
Bailey and junior Bayleigh Hyder were arguably the team’s top two blockers last season. Right-side player Emalee Benard, a junior, is a capable blocker.
“Defensively, from a blocking standpoint, we can be pretty strong,” Swinehart said. “We work really hard at that position.”
Junior Rocio Reynoso will also bolster the front line. Reynoso, who played as a freshman before sitting out last season, has shown progress while also learning a new position (middle hitter).
Another junior, Savannah Sparks, will start at outside hitter.
“We’re looking for her to be a big offensive weapon,” Swinehart said. “I’m hoping to get lots of kills out of her.”
The team’s lone senior, Natilee Clouse, is competing for a position in the back row. Another junior, Raquel Torres, is contending for a spot in the back row.
“We’ve worked really hard on trying to get better this summer,” Swinehart said. “I’ve been really proud of them for that.”
Unicoi began the season with a 3-1 loss to Sullivan East on Aug. 18 and a 3-0 setback against Sullivan Central. But Swinehart saw a number of positives against what are expected to be two of the league’s better teams.
“The first two matches were against some of the strongest teams in our district, and we were competitive,” Swinehart said. “I want to see us be a team that grows through the season, and as we grow, hopefully we’ll start taking more games. We need to work on our offense and work on being offensive off a service receive. When we get that down pat I really feel strong about the team that we’re gonna be.”
The Lady Devils were scheduled to face KACHEA on the road on Monday, Aug. 24, and Sullivan South on Tuesday, Aug. 25, after The Erwin Record’s press deadline for this issue. Their next match will be at Elizabethton on Tuesday, Sept. 1, followed by a trip to Johnson County on Thursday, Sept. 3.
UCHS officials remind fans planning to attend games that face coverings should be worn and social distancing guidelines should be followed at all times. Temperature checks will take place upon entry.