The success of the Cartersville volleyball program has pulled coach Dutch Cothran out of modest anonymity on campus. Now, Cothran can't go more than a day without someone he's never even met coming up to him to talk about the Canes' state playoff run.
It's hard not to be excited about Cartersville hosting a Class 4A state semifinal against St. Pius X at 6 Tuesday night. Cothran just hopes those enthusiastic Canes make their way to The Storm Center for the Final Four match.
"Hopefully, these people who are stopping me in the hallway will make sure to stop by [this evening] and give us support," Cothran said. "The louder and crazier it can be, the better for us. If nothing else, our crowd can see what the elite 4A volleyball teams look like. If our young kids see it and realize that's where we need to get, it helps to keep building our program in the direction it's going."
Tuesday night's game is believed to be the first state semifinal appearance in Cartersville program history. With hopes of reaching the championship match, which would take place Saturday at Marietta High School, the Canes (26-11) face by far their toughest test of the season.
St. Pius (40-5) is ranked as the No. 1 team in 4A by MaxPreps and the sixth-best team in the state, regardless of classification. The Golden Lions reached this stage of the tournament with wins over Sandy Creek, Blessed Trinity and Northside-Columbus.
The team has lost just three games to Georgia-based schools this year. Those defeats to Harrison, North Gwinnett and Walton all came in August. Since losing to out-of-state opponents on consecutive days in mid-September, the Golden Lions have dropped a total of four sets en route to winning their past 17 matches.
Senior Anna Porter leads St. Pius with 362 kills on the year. She is second on the team in aces (59) and digs (366). Junior Maggie McCurdy is a distant second in kills with 252, but she does pace the Golden Lions in blocks with 93 (48 solo).
Senior Abby Brown boasts a team-high 536 assists, while also leading St. Pius with 73 aces. Meanwhile, freshman Emma Farrell tops the chart with 456 digs for the Golden Lions.
Any way you slice it, the task is as tall as possible.
"When you think of Class 4A volleyball in Georgia, you think of St. Pius, Blessed Trinity and Marist," Cothran said. "You think of those guys, those private schools that are perennially in the top three or four. You look up to them and admire all the success their programs have had, but then their comes a time when the admiration has to stop. It has to turn into a game plan, a motivational speech and just a big-time fight for the girls. That's where we are.
"It's not going to be easy at all, but we're going to go into it like we would against anybody else — with a game plan that we're going to work hard to try to execute."
Based on his scouting report, Cothran believes his team's serve-receive ability will be greatly tested.
Cartersville took some time to adjust to tough serves by Richmond Academy in Saturday's quarterfinal match, but, eventually, the Canes figured out how to pass the ball against the Musketeers. It led to a sweep and a berth in this round.
The margin for error this time will be even thinner. There is no room for unforced errors against St. Pius. Every bad pass and every wayward serve is just handing the Golden Lions free points.
Some standout teams are full of high-risk, high-reward plays. Others feed off letting the opponent beat itself. Based on the film Cothran has seen, the latter is the St. Pius strategy, allowing the opposition to make mistakes while playing crisp, sound volleyball.
"They didn't really do anything amazing, but they did nothing wrong," Cothran said of the matches he watched. "... They're just fundamentally sound in every way."
For an underdog, such as Cartersville is, in a match of this magnitude, it's tough to find the right mindset. There's a fine balance to be had.
If players enter a game in awe of their opponent, they've already lost. They also can't play so loose and free that they make mistakes. The team has to respect those on the other side of the net, while knowing they can beat them.
If Cartersville can find that balance, the Canes just might be on their way to the state championship. And Cothran just might find himself on a first-name basis with the entirety of the Cartersville High School student body.
"They're a really good team, but I don't want us to come in thinking, 'We're playing St. Pius,'" Cothran said. "I want them to think, 'We're playing our game, and we're going to do what we do, which is battle as hard as we can. If we get behind, we're going to fight to try to make our way back. If we have the lead, we're going to try to close the set out.'
"The biggest message is don't underestimate, which I don't think we could possibly underestimate them. But also don't overestimate them to the point that you just feel like you're coming here to celebrate being in the Final Four. If that's their goal for [Tuesday night], then we might as well not even show up."