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VOLLEYBALL PREVIEW: South seniors ready for big season
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South Forsyth seniors, from left, Jordan Hawk, Ashley Propes, Abbey Michelone, Hannah Shanley, Tory Wright, Kelli McCravy and Rachel Croce have been playing together since middle school and hope to end their prep careers with a deep run in the state tournament. - photo by Brian Paglia

South Forsyth senior defensive specialist Ashley Propes was confident she had been part of the first middle school volleyball program in Forsyth County five years ago. So was senior setter Kelli McCravy and senior middle hitter Jordan Hawk. It sounded right to senior right-side hitter Abbey Michelone.

Not Tory Wright.

"Wait, are we positive about that?" Wright said.

Together, Propes, McCravy, Hawk, Michelone, Wright and seniors Hannah Shanley and Rachel Croce yelled at Lady War Eagles junior varsity coach Betty Smith.

"Hey, Coach Betty," they said. "Betty. Betty! BETTY!"

Rattled, Smith turned around, but not in time for South head coach Kelly Wren to walk by and confirm that, yes, they had all – with the exception of Shanley – been a part of the first middle school volleyball program in the county.

"Boom!" Propes said. "I was right."

Indeed, they had come to South’s high school gymnasium five years ago as basketball, soccer and softball players. Volleyball was foreign and awkward. No one knew the sport’s positions. No one had volleyball’s unique skills.

"I couldn’t do anything," Hawk said.

"They were all athletes," Wren said. "They just did not have any skill."

In the time since, the seven seniors have helped South become the most successful program in the county. The Lady War Eagles are coming off a 34-19 season in which they became the first volleyball team in county history to reach the quarterfinals of the state tournament. Their second round victory on the road against Camden County was so momentous that hundreds of South students met the team when it arrived back at school.

Now, the seniors are bracing for the biggest expectations they’ve faced yet. With every starter back from last season’s team that lost to Harrison in the Class 6A quarterfinals, the Lady War Eagles could be considered a state title contender.

They’ve already noticed the perception of South volleyball has changed. Teams seemed to play harder against them this summer. Opponents celebrated more with every point.

Well, most of them noticed.

"Who’s targeting us?" Croce said at try-outs on Friday.

In unison, Hawk, McCravy, Michelone, Shanley, Propes and Wright said: "Everyone!"

"Just because we’re good?" Croce said.

Not just good. Wren said this group of seniors is a unique group.

It is a senior class with a state-record holding setter (McCravy), depth in hitters – Hawk in the middle, Croce, Michelone and Shanley on the outside – and two consistent liberos (Propes and Wright).

"They’re the best-rounded class to come through," Wren said. "I mean, you’re not missing anything. By position, we’re a really well-rounded team."

As a freshman, Croce was the first to make varsity in 2010. Hawk, McCravy, Michelone and Wright joined the next season. Last year, Propes moved up from junior varsity and Shanley transferred from Pinecrest Academy.

And South improved as this senior core developed – from 25-13 to 30-14 to last season’s state tournament breakthrough. They gave up basketball and softball and took volleyball lessons. They joined club volleyball programs that play year-round.

"They bought into it," Wren said. "They committed to improving. It became a big passion of theirs."

Five years later, they know they have an unprecedented opportunity. They just won’t talk about it.

"We just decided we’re not going to talk about a state title," Michelone said. "We know our goals, so we’re just going to take it one step at a time."

They know each step will bring their time together closer to an end.

"I’m excited [for this season]," Propes said, "because I love these girls to death."