The new school year has started and students have returned to their books and classes, but the Lady Bulldogs have been working hard for the past five weeks getting ready for the 2019 fall volleyball season.
Preparations have been underway in earnest since the mandatory AAA dead period ended in early July, and included their participation in the annual FASDOGS conditioning program and a pair of road trips to Southwest Missouri and Louisiana.
Head Coach Jennifer Golden is beginning her 19th year at Greenwood. It’s been her only job since graduating from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, and it’s been quite a ride.
Golden and her Lady Bulldogs have won a pair of state titles and played for numerous others, falling one win short as they did last fall. The team has also enjoyed three consecutive 30-win seasons.
The GHS coach was also chosen to lead the West All-Star team last month in Conway, the second time in her career she has earned that particular honor.
“The East won,” lamented Golden when asked about her all-star experience. “It was my second time as head coach and my third time on the [all-star] staff.
“It’s a pretty cool deal,” she added. “You inherit the best [players] from the teams you’ve coached against and you get to put them all together and see what they’ve got.
“The hard part is you’ve only got two practices, and trying to set up a lineup [is difficult]. I ended up with seven outside hitters this year, so some of the kids were playing out of position.
“But it’s an honor for them and they just really buy into it and love it. It was really cool and being with the other coaches was fun too,” said Golden.
As for their preparations for the upcoming season, the longtime Greenwood coach said her players were plenty busy with off-season work even before classes ended last May.
“It was pretty good,” she said. “We were doing a lot of scrimmaging and getting to know each other with the ninth grade mixing in with practices. We got a lot of good, quality reps on the court.”
The Lady Bulldogs return several experienced players in 2019, but will be missing one key player, outside hitter Zoie Benton, who suffered a severe knee injury during the off-season and won’t be able to play during her senior year. Benton was second on the team in kills in 2018.
“The [injury] was worse than originally thought,” said Golden. “They told her nine to 12 month’s recovery time, which puts her even past the club season and the [college] recruiting season.
“[Her family] hated doing it, but they’ve decided to step away and pursue her music career. She’s very good at music. She sings and plays the piano and I can see her doing really well.
“It’s heartbreaking when a kid pours so much heart and passion into [something], and to have this happen before her senior year. I know it really crushed her. But she’s very resilient and she’s got that music career to rely on. She already had some scholarship offers last year for music,” said the coach.
“[Losing Zoie] definitely hurts, but we’re not going to count ourselves out by any means,” said the coach. “It’s going to be a little bit of a new dynamic and we’ve got a big slot to fill, but I think I’ve got kids that will take care of it.
“I’m very excited about who we have coming back,” Golden added. “We have quite a few starters [returning] that played in the state championship match last year.”
One of the team’s top returning players is senior middle hitter Camryn Presley, who led the team in kills (324) and blocks (130) last season. Presley was also second on the team in assists with 468.
“I’ve got a pretty strong lineup,” Golden said. “Camryn’s a three-year starter going into her senior year, and we’re excited to have her leadership coming back.
Presley will likely be joined on the front row by juniors Larkin Luke and Hanna Watkins, and senior Brooke Jones, supported by a host of others all vying for playing time.
They include Zoie Dean, Allison Rose, Courtney Swilling, Bella Mora, Caylee Ciesla, and Sami Stilley. Mora is the only senior in that group.
Greenwood is blessed with great size across its front line, averaging six feet or better, with Watkins playing the middle at 6’6”. “Whatever combination we end up with it’s going to be pretty good,” said Golden.
“I’ve got Larkin Luke coming back in the middle, who had a really good off-season, and [junior] Anna Johnson, my setter. I feel like we’re well-rounded. As far as our lineup goes, it’s looking pretty solid.”
“We also have a couple of back-row returnees with Izzy Davis and Josie Chapple.” Both girls are seniors. Davis led the team in digs (501) last season and in-service aces (39). Johnson was the squad’s assist leader with 584. However, Chapple is currently sidelined with an injury.
“Josie tore her quad muscle the last day of FASDOGS,” explained the coach. “She’s on crutches and she’s doing rehab. Izzy is returning as my libero. She runs the back row and puts people in position with her great leadership qualities.
Juniors Jocelyn Sewell and Maddi Pugh are battling for position on the back row as well. I have kids really stepping up this summer,” added Golden.
As for the sophomores, the coach indicated there were a few who could contribute on the varsity level during the season, though all will play on the junior varsity squad.
“Maddie Bateman is another six-foot middle blocker,” said the coach. “Courtney Swilling is 6’1” and she’s a lefty. And Kylie Lawson could make some noise.”
After Independence Day the Lady Bulldogs participated in the FASDOGS conditioning program, something that’s become an annual ritual for the team.
“The kids really buy into it,” said Golden. “They know it’s going to make them better. They are there every morning, working out and getting better.”
The Lady Bulldogs don’t get to earn 100% attendance status for FASDOGS because they have a major team camp every July where they spend four days practicing at Missouri State University in Springfield.
“That’s always a really good time,” Golden said of her team’s annual trip to Southwest Missouri. “That’s where we get a lot of looks, putting people in and making sure we look at all the different dynamics the team has to offer – looking at all the different lineups possible. “It gives us a really good look at what the future could be,” she added.
“We went up there in mid-July and played 30 sets over four days. We like it because there’s such a diversity of teams that we don’t [ordinarily] see.
“We played in five pools and then on the final day they put us in a bracket. We made it to the gold bracket and the championship game and ended up losing to a really good [Catholic] team out of Illinois. We got a lot of good work in that tournament.,” said Golden.
Asked about the overall strengths and weaknesses of her team, Coach Golden was both confident and honest in her assessment.
“Definitely size,” as a key attribute of her team. “I also feel like we are more balanced than we’ve ever been. We have experienced kids at every position. At this point we’re just working on the little things.
“We’re always going to work on our out-of-system play,” explained the coach. “It’s such a high percentage of our play,” referring to the unscripted and improvised plays that constitute the majority of matches.
Asked to size up the conference, dominated by Greenwood in recent years, the coach said that she didn’t know much more about the rest of the league than she knew at the end of last season.
“I would say we’re probably #1, but I expect Siloam Springs, Russellville, and maybe Alma to have put in some work this summer. Greenbrier is going to be good too. It’s going to be a competitive year in the conference.”
Finally, Golden talked about her team’s recent trip to Louisiana to watch Team USA compete in the Olympic trials, earning an automatic bid to participate in the games in Paris, France, next summer.
“We went to Hot Springs Lakeside on a Friday and played in their team camp, and from there we drove to Shreveport. Bossier City hosted an Olympic qualifying match and it was the USA, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, and Argentina. We saw [the U.S.] against Bulgaria. It went five sets, and it was a great match.”
The Lady Bulldogs open varsity play with a benefit match at Bentonville on Thursday, August 22nd, before starting the regular season with a home match on Monday, August 26th, against the Lady Purple Dogs of Fayetteville.