The Cartersville volleyball team has faced some very solid, very big schools early in the season.
Canes head coach Dutch Cothran has come to regret scheduling a rugged non-region schedule, and the latest example came Monday evening when Sequoyah visited the Storm Center for a best-of-five match.
After a delayed start due to one official not showing up, the Canes improved as the match wore on but still fell in straight sets — 25-15, 25-19, 25-23.
"When I made this schedule out last year, I was expecting us to be further along than we are right now," Cothran said. "I wasn't anticipating stepping into a swarm of bees and not being able to fight them off. That's kind of where we are right now, but we're moving in a good direction.
"We've got a few chemistry issues. We're not accustomed to playing together. We have a freshman who is starting and playing all the way around. That, in itself, is a handful. Playing good competition doesn't make it any easier."
Sequoyah reached the championship round of the Class 6A state tournament last season. Cartersville has also faced a pair of the final eight from last season's 7A bracket, including runner-up Etowah.
The Canes, who made it to the state quarterfinals themselves in 2017, have struggled so far to stack up with their high-level competition. Monday's defeat drops Cartersville to 2-7 on the season.
Things should begin to get marginally easier for Cothran's crew moving forward before Region 5-AAAA play starts Sept. 4.
"I feel like once the players realize we're good enough, good things will start to happen," Cothran said. "As of right now, we're fighting through some stuff, we're battling and we're improving. Hopefully as we get into region play, we'll be ready for that."
It's clear for Monday's encounter that the team will need Nedu Evans to have a monster season to challenge for a third consecutive region crown. Even when Evans was in the back row, she was still the go-to-player for setter Grace Hunter.
Hunter totaled 22 assists in the match with 17 of them going to Evans. No other Cane had more than three kills. Nine of Evans' kills came in the final set as the Canes came up just short in trying to force a fourth set.
After a rough first set that saw Sequoyah score 10 of the final 12 points, it was actually motivation from the celebrations by the Chiefs, including shouting "Shake and Bake" — a catchphrase from Will Ferrell's movie "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," that got Cartersville back in the match.
"She's important in a lot of ways," Cothran said of Evans' impact. "... When some words were said under the net that kind of got us fired up a little bit, Nedu took it personally even though they weren't necessarily directed at her. She kind of turned it up a notch, and as a result, everybody else did.
"I think it's a matter of just getting that kind of intensity out of her without having some adverse conditions cause it. I think she'll be fine, and I love having her on the team. She's great for us."
The Canes never led the entire night. It wasn't for a lack of keeping sets close.
In the second, the Chiefs turned a 10-9 edge into a 16-11 advantage. After Cartersville closed the gap again, Sequoyah rattled off the final four points to close out the set.
The same short spurts, highlighted by poor receiving of serves, doomed the Canes in the decisive third set.
A 6-0 run gave the visitors breathing space early before Cartersville closed within 12-10. However, Sequoyah immediately responded by winning eight of the next 10 points.
Facing match point at 24-19, the Canes scored four straight points, including a kill by Evans to force a timeout. The Chiefs, though, closed things out on the ensuing point with a kill directly into the middle of the home team's defense.
"The really good teams may give up two and occasionally three [points in a row], but the really good teams don't give up six or seven," Cothran said. "We've got to find a way to get out of that.
"Part of that is a rotational issue. There's a rotation there where we don't have enough firepower to have somebody terminate the point there. We end up having to get a lot of kills back row from Nedu, and she's doing a great job of that. But if you get one of those rotations and it happens to coincide with a really good server up, it can get ugly quickly and, unfortunately for us, that's what's been happening."
Based on the level of teams they've faced, it's way too early for the Canes to panic. Cothran wishes he had scheduled fewer games and more practices, but he said his team will take advantage of those limited practices.
The original goal of the tough schedule was to give Cartersville good competition early in the year. Now, the hope is that it toughens up the Canes and maybe an unimpressive record allows some teams to overlook them.
But there's legitimate worry that comes with having a team get beaten time and again, as has been the case so far, despite several close calls. The biggest fear is that it breaks a team's spirit.
How does Cothran plan to keep that from happening?
"That's a million dollar question," he said, " and I don't make that much."