HANCEVILLE – Wallace State Community College's volleyball program has a distinct postseason goal to play in late November at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) tournament.
No conference opponent has prohibited the Lady Lions from reaching that target in two years, and the pursuit of a third straight record-breaking season begins Friday for coach Randy Daniel's squad.
No. 19 nationally-ranked Wallace State has established itself as the premier junior college volleyball program in the state, winning back-to-back Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC)/Region 22 state championships and appearing at the NJCAA Division I tournament in consecutive years.
The team produced a school-best 53-3 record last season, remained undefeated in regular-season conference play for the third year in a row and won its first match under Daniel at the NJCAA tournament, establishing new team records in kills, assists, digs and blocks along the way.
The program's high prestige has resulted in annual pressure to resume the success, but it's a test Daniel embraces.
"It becomes tougher and tougher to win because we have won so much. You get everyone's best shot. It really puts a lot of undue pressure on the freshmen because they weren't part of the state champion team two years ago. The thing I like is the freshmen accept the expectations when they sign," said Daniel, who's entering his fifth season at Wallace State with a 153-28 career mark. "Every year we win and every time we win during the regular season it gets harder to maintain it because people are gunning for you. We know it's not an easy challenge."
Wallace State has six returning sophomores and a talented core of freshmen assembled, seeking a state three-peat and the program's 12th national tournament appearance.
First-team 2010 All-Region performers Caelin Light and Lesley Bemis return as key contributors. Light, a setter from Arab, compiled 767 assists last season, while the 5-foot-11 Bemis was second on the team in blocks (146) and fourth in kills (308).
Gaston's Kris Lawson and Addison's Kaydi Langley are both back to provide leadership at middle hitter. Lawson collected 263 kills and 125 blocks last season and Langley contributed 142 kills.
Amelia Moore, a Clay-Chalkville grad, returns at outside hitter after amassing 190 kills and 124 digs in 2010, and Callie Miller of Hartselle should be the starting libero after finishing with 302 digs during a solid freshman campaign.
"Our six sophomores were critical players to last year's success. Each girl's playing time was substantial. They were counted on day-in and day-out in game situations, so there's plenty of experience," Daniel said. "It's encouraging to know we have six players who went through what we did last year. They are well-versed in all things we do. They have a great opportunity to do well."
Daniel feels the same applies to the freshman class.
Former Alabama All-Star week participant Brooke Beasley of Winfield will complement Light at setter and also serve as one of the team's hitters.
E.A. Shaver, the 2009 Class 1A state tournament MVP at Athens Bible School, joins the Lady Lions at opposite hitter after winning a high school state title as a junior.
Honorable mention All-State player Erica Baker of Hazel Green will add depth at middle hitter, while Hannah Gunn of Ridgecrest Christian in Dothan is slated to contribute at outside hitter.
Bekah Myers and Maegan Belcher, a pair of former Gardendale teammates, reunite with the Lions after solid high school careers and Jessica Coombs, an outside hitter from West Vigo High School in Terre Haute, Ind., and Erica Wicktora from Roger Bacon High in Cincinnati, Ohio round out the freshmen.
"These freshmen make it probably the most depth I've had on any college team. There's a lot of talent and quality in this class. I could honestly separate the sophomores and freshmen and not lose much of a beat," Daniel said. "It's been as competitive as I can remember during preseason practice because of the talent level on both sides. Every drill we do is so competitive; it's blood and guts. We are ready to play and tired of practicing against each other."
Wallace State hosts its fourth-annual season-opening tournament, sponsored by DQ, on Friday and Saturday at Tom Drake Coliseum. Other round-robin tournament participants are Gadsden State, Lawson State, Snead State and Andrew College (Ga.). Wallace State plays Lawson State in its opening match at 9 a.m. Friday.
Wallace State's conference opener is at Southern Union on Sept. 6.
Wallace State also has plans to participate in tournaments this season at Spartanburg, S.C., Panama City, Fla., Chattanooga, Tenn. and West Plains, Mo.
Daniel believes the combination of his solid non-conference schedule and improved league opponents will help bolster his squad's chances to secure another state championship and NJCAA tournament appearance.
"Our conference has some strong teams. We'll have to fight hard for all that we can accomplish, but getting back to nationals is obviously the goal. Winning a match there last year and almost winning a second gave us the confidence that we definitely deserved to be there," Daniel said. "We want to be there again, playing on the last Saturday of the season. If you're playing on the last Saturday of the season, you're of the top 10 teams and anything can happen."
For more information about Wallace State athletics, visit wallacestate.edu.