Volleyball is a lot more than a recreational sport to Lauren Love and Shay Ashford.
But it takes time to change the culture at schools that don”t have the tradition in sports like volleyball, which is still relatively new in the state of Mississippi.
That challenge doesn”t faze Lauren Love or Shay Ashford.
The first-year coaches both have played sports in college and now are focused on bringing their love for volleyball to Starkville and Columbus high schools.
On Thursday, Love”s Yellow Jackets defeated Ashford”s Falcons 3-0. Set scores were 25-15, 25-20, 25-12.
Senior Janae Poe and eighth-grader McKay Richardson paced Starkville (6-7) with seven kills apiece, while senior Deanna Rieves had five and sophomore Elizabeth Scott had four.
Candace Potter had five aces to help the Yellow Jackets rebound from a 3-0 home loss to Tupelo on Tuesday.
Love, who took over for Jackie Allstot, was a defensive specialist at the University of Tennessee from 1996-99. She was an assistant volleyball coach at Radford in 2001, and spent two years as an assistant coach at the Webb School in Knoxville, Tenn.
In addition to coaching with the Smokey Mountain Junior Volleyball Club, Love spent time working at the Mississippi State volleyball camps before she learned about the coaching vacancy at Starkville High.
Love started her transformation of the program in May with tryouts and has worked ever since to install new systems and concepts. She credits Allstot for establishing a solid program and for coaching a group of players who have been willing to learn and who have been eager to adapt to new ways of doing things.
Love acknowledged that the Yellow Jackets won”t become a state power in volleyball overnight, especially with six seniors on this season”s team, but she is eager to use her passion as a tool to inspire younger players to experience volleyball.
Love showed Thursday that she will try to do that with plenty of teaching. Instead of jumping and screaming on the sidelines, she encouraged and applauded her players” efforts and made suggestions in timeouts on how players needed to move their feet or position themselves for kill attempts.
Ashford used similar methods with an equally experienced and young team. Seniors Tarshayla Stephenson (six kills) and Ebony Ross (three) led the Falcons, who also are learning a lot about the sport of volleyball every day.
“It has been interesting,” Ashford said. “Coming from a winning program like Tupelo and having to turn everything around, I have to get accustomed to taking things slow and build a program. It is testing my character as a person and as a coach.”
Ashford was a standout women”s basketball player at the University of North Alabama. She played in 79 games in three seasons (37 starts) and finished her career with 682 points, 452 rebounds, 112 assists, 71 steals and 57 blocked shots, which is a school career record.
She also played basketball at Tupelo High for coach Nanci Gray and helped the team, which won the Class 5A state title in 2001, earn a No. 1 ranking in the state for three consecutive years.
Ashford, who played at Itawamba Community College for one year, also was a standout volleyball player and track and field athlete at Tupelo High.
In 2003, she was received the state”s PopStar Award (top girls volleyball player), and was the state”s Gatorade volleyball Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons.
The 5-foot-10 Ashford had 177 kills, 64 assists, 35 digs, 12 blocks, and 32 service aces as a senior.
Ashford is trying to push her players to see that they can reach the same level. She knows her team, which has six seniors, will be good this season and in the future.
To prepare for that challenge, Ashford said she plans to get middle school players involved in the sport to provide a feeder system for the high school program. She realizes that process could take a few years, but it is a task she is ready to take on.
“I want to see if I can coach somebody and not just be out there and want to play,” Ashford said. “I have to take my time and realize I have to teach these girls. We have to start from the beginning, and I have to remember if I remember everything from the beginning. We have to take it slow. I have to keep reminding myself that this program is not going to change overnight.”
Ashford said the passion she has for volleyball will help her teach those lessons. She said she typically plays with the girls in practice. She also has told the girls she could have gone to another school to coach basketball, but she elected to come to Columbus High and to coach volleyball.
Ashford said the key for her will be to get the players to feel the love for volleyball in their hearts and know that the sport is more than a backyard activity.
“I tell them this is not recreational volleyball, it is competition,” Ashford said. “That is the hardest part, to get them to understand that what they do in (physical education class) is totally different.. There are plays involved and it is a thinking game. They say ”Well, I can jump out of the gym,” but OK, do you have the hand-eye coordination to hit the ball.
“I tell the girls all of the time when I was hitting, I could jump an inch off the court, but I could see where all of the girls were on the court, and I could see where all of the hands were. You have to look at all of that while you”re in the air while you”re in your approach. They tell me they can”t do that, but I tell them they can. Don”t say I can”t. You can.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.