By Trey Williams
The future looks bright for Unicoi County volleyball, which will return six starters from a team that stretched a season-long winning streak to five matches last week before having its season end with a loss to eventual champion Sullivan Central in the District 1-AA tournament.
The Blue Devils season appeared to be done a day earlier. They trailed Elizabethton 2-0 in a first round match, but rallied for a 22-25, 21-25, 25-18, 25-16, 16-14 triumph.
“Incredible match,” Unicoi County coach Shelley Swinehart said. “Both sides fought hard. The match had several long rallies and some great moments. I was so proud of my team.”
Unicoi trailed 13-9 and 14-12 in the fifth set. But sophomores Sydney Compton and Olivia Bailey served the Blue Devils back to victory.
“They both served under lots of pressure,” Swinehart said. “Despite the pressure, they each served multiple times in a row with no service errors. My last server, Sydney Compton, a sophomore, came up to serve, with the score 13-14 and served the last three points with point 15 being an ace.”
Shelby Miller delivered a whopping 32 kills. Savannah Sparks had a season-high 13 kills and two aces.
Bayleigh Hyder and Olivia Bailey also had season highs with five kills apiece. Bailey’s were all via setter dumps.
Hyder also had six blocks. Emalee Benard tallied four aces.
“Several players posted season highs in stats,” Swinehart said. “We played to win and never quit. … This match was one of the favorites of my coaching career. Big thanks to the Blue Devils fans that came out to support us.”
Miller made the all-tournament team.
“Shelby Miller battled a horrible migraine the entire match,” Swinehart said, “and still managed to play an exceptional match and post the kill that ended the match for our win.”
Miller is eager to see what 2021 has in store.
“I am very excited for next season. We’re fortunate to only be losing one senior this year,” Miller said. “I think we’re going to have a strong presence in our conference next year. Our confidence as a team grew tremendously throughout the season and that contributed to our winning streak. Everything we’ve worked on throughout the season finally came together for the last games of our season. We’ve all worked very hard to be where we are now as a team and we’re all very proud of how far we’ve come. …
“It was a great honor for me to be selected for the all-tournament team. There is a lot of great volleyball talent in the area.”
Sullivan Central swept Unicoi 25-15, 25-20, 25-12 in the semifinals. Central went on to sweep Sullivan South in the championship.
“Central was a tough team,” Swinehart said. “We knew coming in we would have our work cut out for us. We played hard.”
Miller and Sparks made the all-conference team.
“I’m really proud of all the girls’ growth over the season,” Swinehart said. “We worked hard on being competitive, reading the court, making smart plays and playing better defense. By the end of the season we had grown in each of those three areas. I’m really looking forward to our offseason and working with them so we can come back strong next season.”
The coaching staff was instrumental in the Blue Devils continuing to grind when victories weren’t coming frequently during a couple of stretches of the season.
“Coach Swinehart is a great coach,” Miller said. “She is very passionate about us improving as players on the court but also as improving as young women. This year we were very fortunate to have Hannah Lloyd as a life coach and volleyball coach. She was always there for us if we needed to talk about anything or if we had questions about our play. Coach Matt (Swinehart) was also very supportive of us and the team. …
“Overall, I’m very happy how our season came together and how much we’ve improved as individual players and as a team. I’m excited to see how we will build off of this year for next season. I’m also looking forward to the group of freshmen coming up next year. A lot of them hold great potential to be great assets for the team.”