The Thomas Sumter Academy varsity volleyball team enters this weekend's SCISA 2A state tournament in Myrtle Beach with a 23-2 record and high expectations.
The Lady Generals, one of the top seeds in the lower bracket of the tournament, will face Hilton Head Prep on Friday at 1:30 on Court 7 at Myrtle Beach Sports Center. The winner will face the winner between Spartanburg Day and Trinity-Byrnes, one of the two teams to hand TSA a loss this season, at 5 p.m. Should the Lady Generals win, they'll play a third game on Friday, and the tournament concludes on Saturday.
TSA head coach Gwen Herod said the tournament's move from Sumter to Myrtle Beach two years ago when Sumter County Civic Center was being used for flood relief operations has been a mixed blessing.
"At the Exhibition Center, it was easier to get neighbors and church members to come by and see us play; but (the new venue is) court after court after court. It's an intense setting, and we play very intense," Herod said. "We try to use everything that happens. We want to turn it to work for us and not against us, so we use that time to bond and to get away and stay focused on volleyball. In some ways it's good - we know where we're at and we're together, and that works out good for us sometimes."
Thomas Sumter is a veteran team, with five senior starters, and has been very businesslike over the course of the season, Herod said.
"The girls have been very disciplined," she said. "They haven't brought a bunch of drama to the court, and it's been a good season as far as staying focused. I couldn't me more proud of them. They've worked hard, and they know where they want to go. They've been accountable to each other, and it's been a good season; and now none of that matters going into this weekend."
Focus is the key word for the Lady Generals, entering the tournament with the loftiest of goals.
"Our goal right now is we want to win the last game we play in in the tournament," Herod said. "We're still working hard and getting ready, but I've been very pleased with their dedication and practice and their work ethic. We hope we go and stay focused."
Senior outside hitter Anita Cookey-Gam leads the Lady Generals with an average of 18 kills per match and a game-high of 25, while senior Carmen Silvester, her counterpart on the front line, averaged nine kills per game this season.
"Anita, of course, is just a great player," Herod said. "She's an asset and just a sparkplug on the court."
Herod noted that Silvester returned to the team this season after sitting out last year with an injury.
"She has stepped back up this year and is starting as an outside hitter, and has really contributed both defensively and offensively," Herod said.
Setting up the outside hitters, junior setter Sydney Daniel averaged 19 assists and senior Josie Reed added 16. In the middle, senior Taja Hunley averaged 14 kills per game and Karleigh Young, playing her first year at the varsity level after being brought up from the junior varsity, averaged nine.
In back, senior libero Diamond Gibson averaged 18 digs per match.
"That's a new position for her," Herod said of Gibson. "She's played for us before, but she's played outside and different positions. Diamond is the kind of player that can play wherever you need her to play, and we asked her to play libero and she has done a great job. Diamond is a good defensive player and was willing to step up and do that, and that's been a big deal for us this year. She has played very well."
Herod said the quality of volleyball in the area has helped her team prepare for this weekend, when it all comes together.
"We've played a lot of good teams, she said. "Some games we won in three and some we battled to five, and you play so much - we had three matches a week two or three weeks this year. We tried to stay on track with our goals and stay focused and I think that we have done a good job with that.
"They set high goals for themselves and have high expectations," Herod said. "So we'll work hard and pray hard and go down there and see what happens."