In every interview and casual conversation since the 2018 Cartersville volleyball season ended, Canes head coach Dutch Cothran has mentioned how different his squad will look in 2019.
It’s an understandable topic given that five of the six main contributors graduated off the program’s first team to reach the state semifinals.
The one caveat to the new look Cartersville squad is that the expectations haven’t changed, and Cothran expects this year’s group to meet those same lofty standards.
“It definitely will look different, but it doesn’t feel very different,” Cothran said last week. “There’s some excitement in the air. There’s confidence, which is a good thing, because we have a lot of young players who are stepping in and playing a bigger role.
“Right now, I’m not looking around and seeing a bunch of kids who are nervous, scared or worried. I’m seeing kids who are confident and embracing that role that they’re about to step into. I’m happy to see that.”
To find individuals with limited varsity experience to have that sort of attitude is a rarity.
Cothran believes part of the credit goes to the culture within the program that comes with three consecutive Region 5-AAAA championships and deep playoff runs. However, he thinks a huge part of the equation is the elite club level volleyball those athletes play.
The experience gained from facing standout travel teams throughout the year has prepared the Canes to face the top high school programs in the state.
All told, it means that even without power hitters like Nedu Evans and Rebekah Stevens Cartersville should have the pieces to put together a dynamic system.
“Definitely early on, there will be a lot more people in the mix,” Cothran said. “… This will be my fourth year at Cartersville, and every year, it seems like we’ve had that adjustment period. Once we kind of caught on, everybody meshed, and we found that group and rolled with it, trying to find time for the others when we could.
“I figure that will probably happen again later on in the year. Initially, we’re going to be throwing people in a lot of different places and just seeing how everything works out later.”
One of the major X-factors for the Canes this season will be the health of sophomore Anna Grace Brock. A key piece of Cartersville’s 2018 postseason, Brock has more varsity experience than almost anyone else on the team.
“She experienced an injury this year, so as long as she’s completely recovered from that, I’m really looking forward to having her back,” Cothran said of Brock. “She’s really going to be a huge part.”
Halle Matthews will be asked to take on a larger role this year, replacing London Shaw in the middle. But it’s the other London — London Moultrie — who could be the biggest key to the Canes offense.
“She played for us a little bit as a freshman, while her playing time was limited, she grew a lot during her club season,” Cothran said of Moultrie. “She’s a great athlete, and she’s looked really good, so far. We needed somebody to replace what Nedu could bring, and London is that type of athlete. She’s becoming that type of player, so I’m excited about having her.”
There’s still a few questions that will need to be answered in the first few weeks of the season.
Cothran said the race to take over at Liberia following Anna Mathis’ graduation is wide open. He also said Grace Hunter’s successor at setter isn’t, well, set. Although, it does appear Woodland transfer Macey Vaughn will get the first crack at securing the spot with freshman Lillie Gochee likely to see time there, as well.
“They moved into the district, and she transferred to Cartersville,” Cothran said of Vaughn. “She was a really good setter for them, and she’s working really hard for us.”
This year’s iteration of the Canes will be on display Thursday at North Paulding to open the season. That will be followed Friday and Saturday with matches in the Sequoyah Classic.
It’s not exactly easing into the schedule.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we take some knocks that first week,” Cothran admitted. “I’m not going to be bothered by it, because we’re going to have to learn to fight and battle through those things if we’re going to make a good run in the playoffs. There’s no better way to do that than to just start off facing a bunch of lions.”
Cothran is a former member of the armed forces, so he sometimes delves into military analogies. He used one of them to describe what he sees as the biggest difference between the 2018 Canes and this year’s version.
Last year’s team, he said, had plenty of “weapons” with powerful hitters all over the court. This season, Cothran feels like his squad doesn’t have those weapons, but instead, the Canes possess the “tools” needed to build the weapons.
That assembly process will determine whether 2019 proves to be a rebuilding or reloading year for Cartersville.
“We have to get those tools working together to create something good,” Cothran said. “If we were just completely lacking talent, I would be worried.
“But I feel like after we get through this brutal first part of our schedule, we’ve got enough that we can be really competitive in our region and hopefully make a run in the state playoffs.”