HANCEVILLE, ALA. – One of Randy Daniel's goals as Wallace State's volleyball coach is to have his players better prepared for life after leaving Hanceville.
"It's not just about volleyball. It's about learning discipline, getting your education and doing whatever you need to do to earn your degree. If you get to play volleyball and stay healthy along the way, that's great. While you are here, we expect to win and do our best at everything," Daniel said. "We want to be tops in the state in athletics and academics and do the best we can for our national ranking."
Winning has never been an issue during Daniel's reign at Wallace State. His teams have won the last five Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC)/Region 22 championships in addition to six consecutive ACCC regular-season titles.
Wallace State, ranked No. 18 in the NJCAA preseason poll released this week, begins the season Friday with high expectations once again.
Wallace State has a daunting non-conference schedule right away, opening the 2014 campaign at the South Suburban Tournament in Wisconsin Dells, Wisc. After spending this weekend in Wisconsin, the Lions travel to Chicago for a pair of matches before wrapping up the road trip at the Owens Community College tournament in Toledo, Ohio, from Aug. 29-30.
Daniel, the winningest coach in Wallace State volleyball history with 258 victories, purposely constructed a formidable schedule before Labor Day.
"We'll see nothing but national-tournament caliber teams on this opening road trip. We haven't had a schedule like this at the beginning of a season since I've been here. We usually play local teams early on. We may come back with a terrible record, but this schedule can get us better prepared for what we hope is another national tournament appearance in November," said Daniel, who is entering his eighth season with the program. "At this point in my career, my job is to make our team be the best it can be. I feel our team is very athletic and talented so it's my job to make the competition strong in order to give us the best opportunity to be successful at the end."
Wallace State finished 30-17 last season, sweeping Gadsden State in six straight sets during the state tournament finals to earn the Lions' fifth state title in a row. It was the first time during the state-championship run under Daniel that Wallace State had to fight through the elimination bracket and force the "if" match in the finals.
"You can't predict you are going to win six games in a row against your rival in that situation. We talked about it happening and wanted it to happen, but a lot of things went our way for it to actually happen. Some of our players decided to play their best when it mattered the most. Normally in that situation, players don't perform at a high level because the pressure gets to them. Our players stepped up in a high pressure situation because we expect that all the time," Daniel said.
Wallace State has a solid sophomore core returning this year, especially among its attackers.
BreAnna Thompson returns at outside hitter after earning first-team All-ACCC/Region 22 and ACCC All-tournament recognition last season. The 5-foot-11 Piedmont native finished second in the conference with 421 kills and added 80 digs.
Syretha Pride and Bethany Johnson also return along the front line. Pride battled the aftermath of stress fracture surgery as a freshman, yet still led the conference with a .399 hitting percentage. She added 319 kills and 74 blocks. Johnson was third in the conference and on the Wallace State roster with 393 kills. Pride and Johnson, from Madison County High and Pope John Paul II High respectively, were both ACCC/Region 22 second-team members and All-tournament selections as freshmen.
"I'm excited about all three of those players returning and the experience they bring to the court. They know what it's going to take to succeed. Their stats stand out from last year, and they've all had good preseasons," Daniel. "Those three can really benefit from the aggressive schedule we have put together."
Plainview products Kaci Kirk and Montana Clark and defensive specialist Olivia Walker also return to the Wallace State fold this season.
Kirk, who was an All-tournament selection at setter last season, finished with 443 assists, while Clark played valuable minutes, racking up 301 digs and 226 kills. Walker is switching from middle hitter to defensive specialist this season after compiling 142 digs last season.
Daniel made an emphasis in recruiting to get taller and more athletic across the board and is confident he accomplished that with the freshman newcomers.
Middle hitters Kheala Roberts from Danville and Cidavia Hall from Dothan are both listed at 6-foot-1. Outside hitter Teryn Simmons is 5-foot-11 and Sidney Cooper, a Walker graduate, is 5-foot-9.
Even the newcomers at setter, Melissa-Paul Hill and Alexandra Gamble, are each listed at 5-foot-10.
"I made a very conscious effort to get taller. We were probably shorter than any team we played last season, but I felt our defense was going to make up for that. I rolled the dice on that, and it didn't wind up that way. I knew for us to get better we had to get taller and more athletic. I don't think if I've ever had a team this tall," said Daniel, who has led Wallace State to five of its 14 NJCAA national tournament appearances. "Cidavia Hall is one of our taller players and is getting better and better. She has improved probably more than anyone I've ever had from where she was when I got her to where she is now. She's really athletic."
The freshman class is also littered with championship experience as Hill and Sarah Ellen Battles were both members of Hartselle's Class 5A state championship in 2012. Savanna Tidwell, a Winston County graduate, was also accustomed to deep postseason runs in high school.
Stephanie Eckerd and Katelyn Bishop, both outside hitters, round out the Wallace State freshman class.
Wallace State hosts Southern Union on Sept. 2 for its first conference match.
For more information about Wallace State athletics, visit wallacestate.edu.
Pictured is BreAnna Thompson