The biggest hurdle for Pinecrest Academy volleyball in recent seasons has been its silence on the court, so on this October afternoon at practice, Keely Denkman counted the loudest as her group pumped out 10 push-ups.
"Do’em together," she shouted. "One, two, three …"
Their punishment complete, the Lady Paladins split into two teams for an intra-squad scrimmage. Denkman joined her team. She swung her right arm up and down several times, stretched it across her chest, anything to loosen the shoulder that cost her half of last season and left 2014 into question. Denkman had been an all-area selection two seasons ago. She was all but forgotten last season.
This season, she was back to form, an All-Area 4-A selection who led Pinecrest in kills (245) and aces (60), and the Lady Paladins returned to form too, going 24-17 and reaching the state playoffs for the second time since Pinecrest joined the Georgia High School Association.
"It’s a good thing to know that we’re going to the state playoffs," Denkman said, "and we have a chance to get through the first round."
That was the topic on head coach Meg Bohn’s mind before the team began to scrimmage.
"Do you want to get out of the first round of state?" Bohn said.
"Yes," a few muttered.
Bohn gave a quizzical look, the meaning obvious: too much silence.
"YES!" Denkman and the team shouted, and Bohn proceeded to give the answer.
"Our biggest thing has always been our intensity," Denkman said. "We have a more quiet group of girls, so the volume and the intensity has always been a bit of a roadblock here and there, which is building each other up and cheering each other on from the bench and the court. That’s very important."
This season was important to Denkman, and so she thrust herself into building up her mental and physical abilities to be ready. During club season, she did agility and biometrics training with a coach from A5 Volleyball on days she didn’t have practice and during the Thanksgiving break. During this high school season, she trained on weekends that Pinecrest wasn’t playing in a tournament.
"It’s just 45 minutes," Denkman said, "but it’s super-intense, super-fast. It helps."
Denkman got right to work for Pinecrest – 12 kills against North Cobb Christian, 11 kills against Eastside, six aces against Stockbridge and 14 digs against Atlanta International.
Then came the highlight – a 10-kill performance in a victory against Fellowship Christian to punctuate a 9-1 start for the Lady Paladins.
"That was a huge success for us," Denkman said.
Denkman was a steadying presence for the Lady Paladins as their flaws began to get exposed over the marathon of the regular season. After the torrid start, Pinecrest went 15-16 the rest of the way, needing a three-set victory against Mount Vernon Presbyterian to secure the last playoff spot in Area 4.
"[The regular season is] grinding," Denkman said. "But we love each other so much. We’re a really close group of girls, closer than we have been in past years. We help each other through everything."
The chemistry helped freshmen middle hitters Caroline and Catherine Clark develop into significant contributors, helped setter Kristina Smoak transition to setter after three years as a middle hitter and helped the team stay confident through the season’s ebbs and flows.
"At the end of the day we love each other," Denkman said, "and we’re playing for each other and for God, and that’s basically what gets us through all the games and practices."
On this October afternoon, only three practices remained until Pinecrest’s Class A private school playoff match against No. 2-ranked Hebron Christian (39-7), just a month since the teams met during the regular season. Pinecrest lost that match in three sets, but they’d learn plenty about themselves since.
Practice was loud, and Denkman was the loudest. When her side won drills, she shouted the other side’s punishment ("Five push-ups!" "10 push-ups!"). When a teammate dug a ball right to the setter, it was Denkman who said, "Nice pass!"
Healthy finally, Denkman made her statement this season. Pinecrest is ready to make a statement, too.
"I know that we’ve competed against some really good competition these past couple of months," Denkman said, "so I think we’re prepared."