Outlook for Lady Bulldogs volleyball is Golden
By Richard White
Jennifer Golden is entering her 17th year as Head Coach for Lady Bulldogs volleyball, having taken her team to the state finals seven times and winning it all in 2011. But the upcoming season could be her best, with several seniors and half-a-dozen starters coming back from last year’s 30-7 team that went unbeaten (12-0) in league play.
Looking back at the state semi-finals in 2016, Golden said, “We lost a tough match to Jonesboro. We lost in five. It was one of those matches that’s hard to explain and get past, but it just boils down to we lost the match and we’re looking forward.”
When asked to size up the prospects for the new season, the coach was unfazed. “I feel really good,” she said. “I’ve got nine returning seniors, and the leadership they’re bringing to the table cannot be compared. It’s a good, large group. They are great kids all around, from top to bottom in the program. I’m real excited about what we have. These kids have been there and they know what they need to do and they’re ready to do it.”
When asked to identify her top seniors, Golden said, “I could mention all of them. There’s not one that really out-works the others. That’s just who they are. I can’t really mention one without mentioning them all. It’s that good of a group.” Seven of the nine should see significant playing time, said the coach.
“My junior class is small,” she continued sizing up her roster. “They are returning five. I have a couple that will see significant playing time and the others are really close to earning some. Abby Cagle is returning. She started last year and she’s looking to be a big force for us on the front row. The others have that opportunity too.
The team also has enjoyed a nice influx of younger players. “My sophomores are going to fit in very nicely,” said the coach. “I’ve got a couple that have already found their niche and are looking very positive for us.” In fact, the entire junior high roster is packed with tall, talented players just waiting to move up to the varsity team in the next few years.
Every year Coach Golden invites Matt Sonnichsen to work with her Lady Bulldogs in the pre-season. Sonnichsen is a friend, a former player at UCLA and on the men’s national team, and a former college volleyball coach. He was in town last week for his annual visit and liked what he saw, commenting that this could be Golden’s best team in the last 15 years.
As for off-season preparations, the Lady Bulldogs tried a couple of new wrinkles, while adhering to their basic routine. “All the girls committed to doing FASDOGS,” said Golden. “In the past they’ve gone on their own time, but this year I wanted us to do it together, so they all worked really hard, and it showed.
“We also did a team camp at Arkansas this year, though we typically go to Missouri State. It was a little different, but it was good. We also had our team camp here (August 3rd) with eight other teams and we went undefeated. Included among those teams were Hot Springs Lakeside, Charleston, Lake Hamilton, Harrison, Mansfield, Paris, Lavaca, and the Little Rock Flames.
When asked to name some of her starters, the coach politely declined. “They come in to my program knowing that just because you started last year doesn’t mean you start this year. Earning it involves all of pre-season and we still have next week to go. I still have some kids switching around in certain spots and no one is a definite yet.”
Still, the starters are likely to have a lot of experience and many girls who don’t start will play important roles coming off the bench as subs.
One big question mark this season is who will replace the departed Madi Pfeifer, now playing for Southern Arkansas University. In fact, all three seniors from last season are playing college ball, including McKenzie Presley and Hannah Johnston in addition to Pfeifer.
“Well, you can’t replace 6-4,” Golden said of Pfeifer, an awesome right-side hitter. “We’ve been working kids all through their club season – all of my kids play club ball for the most part – and they knew that spot was open, and they’ve worked hard. It may be the one spot where we don’t have a definite, but some kids are starting to stand out. You can’t replace 6-4, but we’re going to do a heck of a job fitting in somebody.”
Golden expects her team to be about average across the front line in height. “Camryn Presley is in the middle and she’s 5-11. Lilliah Pugh is my other middle and she looks a lot taller than she is.
“In ninth grade we have one girl pretty close to six feet, and we just had one enroll this week that is 6’-4”. Even our eighth graders are tall,” said the coach.
When asked about the conference race, Golden said that not much has changed. “In our conference we compete with Siloam Springs and Russellville real well,” she said. “They both got new coaches this year, along with Alma.” This will be the last season the team will play in a blended conference of 5A and 6A schools.
As for the 2017 schedule, Golden said, “We go to the Bentonville tournament August 26th and they bring in teams from Missouri and sometimes Kansas, so that’s a pretty stout tournament we always look forward to with lots of good competition that we don’t usually see around here.
“We also picked up the Ozark, Missouri tournament (Oct. 7) and that will be some really good competition. That will bump up our play a little bit going into the state tournament. We’re also hosting the state tournament this year (Oct. 24-26).”
So the outlook for this season and beyond is indeed golden for the Lady Bulldogs. “Any given day I can walk in the gym and see kids working and playing,” said the coach. “Between our off-season [activities] and Mona Jones doing our velocity program, I don’t know too many schools that have as many as 100-plus kids playing as much as we do. It’s just exciting to see. The sport is growing and the kids love it.
“We’d love to have people come see us [play]. Once people see the level we’re at and experience what these girls can do, it gets raucous when we’re having a good game.
“That’s the good thing about our little gym. You put just a few people in here and it packs the gym. We have a good student section too. The kids really get into it.”
The Lady Bulldogs have a benefit match at Rogers on Thursday, August 17th, to conclude their pre-season work. They open the regular season the following Monday, August 21st, at Fayetteville, a Class 7A powerhouse, before traveling to Rogers Heritage, another 7A school, the next day. They also play at Fort Smith Northside on August 24th.
Golden is ably assisted by Kimberly Lowe. Dianne Popp is the head junior high coach.