Kelly Wren’s gaze followed her South Forsyth volleyball team as they ran up, down and sideways on the bleachers at the high school’s football stadium on Tuesday.
During the tough moments, a player would yell, "Who wants that ring?"
"South Forsyth wants that ring!" they all responded.
Wren nodded. "That’s what we’re finding out right now," she said.
It’s a mantra the Lady War Eagles have maintained entering this season despite the loss of seven seniors who helped the program make county history. No team from Forsyth County had ever made the Final Four of the state tournament until South last season. And so perhaps there has never been as much anticipation for a local volleyball team entering a season as for the Lady War Eagles this year.
The senior core that South leaned on last season afforded Wren the comfort of predictability. Rachel Croce, Jordan Hawk, Kelli McCravy, Hannah Shanley and Tory Wright took up five of six starting spots and rarely came off the court. They, along with Abbey Michelone and Ashley Propes, had grown up in the program, elevating its reputation and postseason success with every season – first the Elite Eight in 2012, then last season’s Final Four run.
"They were like a machine," Wren said. "They had been together for so long that they knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. That was their show."
And it was entertaining. South went a school-best 48-13, ascended to No. 1 in Class AAAAAA for several weeks and got revenge against perennial powerhouse Harrison in the quarterfinals. After South lost 3-0 to eventual state champion Walton in the Final Four, players swarmed Wren and the coaching staff with hugs and tears under the visiting bleachers.
"They were my kids for a long time," Wren said.
So a new family emerges this season.
Some of the faces are familiar, particularly senior middle hitter Taylor Svehla, the 2013 Forsyth County Player of the Year who had 476 kills, 142 digs, 108 blocks and 49 aces in a dominant season a year ago.
Others are too, though they haven’t been counted on before as they will be this season. That, Wren said, was simply another testament to the dependability and talent of last season’s seniors. Senior setter Hannah Larson was on varsity for two years behind McCravy, last season’s County Setter of the Year. Seniors Kailey Carr, Kalyn Edleman, Karlie Mason, Ashley Stephens, Amanda Rooney and sophomore Amanda Nugent all saw time in South’s rotation last season.
But some of the newest faces could have just as much an impact. Junior setters Courtney Darling and Avery Tutt could push Larson for playing time after helping South’s junior varsity go undefeated last season. Sophomore Shea McNamara and freshman Avery Kline, who are both listed at 6-feet, should give the Lady War Eagles a bigger presence at the net alongside Svehla than last season.
Overall, Wren said she expects this team to be scrappier with greater flexibility in the rotation.
"I think there’s an opportunity, depending on who we’re playing, where I think the personnel could be mixed and matched," Wren said.
It’s another team that appears full of talent and experienced club-level players, a collection that Wren said is already displaying the potential to make another deep state playoff run.
"They have the training. They have the skill," Wren said. "Do they have the chemistry and leadership that it will take to win? That’s what we’re hoping to find. That’s our big key."
That’s been the point of the mid-afternoon drills and the preseason team night at a cabin on Lake Lanier, because players said after last season’s historic run, there’s no choice but to aim for a state title.
"This year we want to bring it home," Edleman said. "I know that we can do it, because we’ve got so much talent and we work really hard."
"The Final Four was like a little taste of it," Larson said. "Now we’re going for the whole thing."