Allison Woolbright can recall being in gymnasiums as far back as her memory allows.
If Woolbright had to guess, that’s probably where she developed her love for sports and her competitive spirit.
It also helped that Woolbright’s mother, Rachel Prater Meacham, worked as a volleyball coach at Millport (Ala.) and South Lamar high schools, which is where Allison honed her skills as a volleyball and as a basketball player.
Last year, Woolbright had her first taste of life on the sidelines, as she served as an assistant coach for Laura Lee Holman on the New Hope High volleyball team. When Holman decided earlier this year to leave New Hope High and to take a job at North Pike High, Woolbright said she was surprised and disappointed, but she also realized she had an opportunity to pass on her love for sports and competition to a new group of young athletes, so she told New Hope High Principal Matt Smith she was interested in taking Holman’s place as volleyball coach. Last month, the Lowndes County School Board approved Woolbright as New Hope High’s new volleyball coach.
“I love the game and I love working with the girls,” said Woolbright, who is a U.S. History teacher at New Hope High. “As I played, I built so many friendships and learned so much about life being involved in sports, not just the game, but the friendships and overcoming obstacles and learning how to win and lose.”
Woolbright is one of several new hires at New Hope High that the Lowndes County School Board has approved in its last two meetings, including one Tuesday night. At the latest meeting, Smith confirmed former South Lamar High fast-pitch softball coach Tony Seals will be New Hope High’s new fast-pitch softball coach. Earlier in June, Seals was approved as a physical education teacher at New Hope Middle School and as assistant varsity boys basketball/junior high boys basketball and assistant varsity fast-pitch softball coach. Smith said Seals agreed to become head fast-pitch coach after another coach who accepted the position changed his mind.
“He has had so much success, and his record speaks for itself in everything he has coached,” Smith said. “Most recently, he has done well in boys basketball and spent 18, 19, or 20 years at South Lamar before retiring there and moving over here. … We are blessed to have him.”
In addition to Seals taking over part of the coaching duties from former coach Tabitha Beard, who left the school earlier this year to take a job at Tupelo High, Smith said Bobby Taylor and Billy Ray Lee will serve as head coach and assistant coach for the school’s slow-pitch softball team.
New Hope High also filled vacancies on its football staff with the approval of former Mississippi State tight end John Jennings, who will work as a special education teacher and as an assistant fast-pitch softball coach; Mike Thorne, who will work in a business position and will work with the freshman and varsity football teams; and Tyler Poole, who will work with junior high football and could help with the baseball program. Poole was a student teacher at New Hope High in 2014 and was a part of the coaching staff that helped lead the Trojans to their second-consecutive Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A championship.
Earlier last month, New Hope also filled its opening for a girls basketball coach when it named Chad Brown to replace Holman. Brown will move to New Hope High to take Holman’s position as a physical education teacher. Megan Acosta, who will teach art at the high school, was approved to be an assistant volleyball coach.
Woolbright is excited to work with Acosta because she feels their playing experience will help them relate to the girls and will enable them to help them develop their skills, whether it be passing or hitting. Woolbright said she played setter at Millport High and was a member of the first graduating class from South Lamar High, while Acosta, who she said is taller, is using her background to help the team’s hitters.
That experience figures to help a program that will enter its fourth season later this year. Holman, a former softball and basketball standout, learned about the sport when she helped start the program in 2012. In 2013, exchange student Silvia Sartori helped New Hope win its first district title and its first playoff match before losing to eventual Class II state champion Lake Cormorant in the state semifinals. Sartori was named The Dispatch’s All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year. The 6-foot-1 middle blocker and hitter went on to play volleyball at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. She missed the 2014 season due to an injury.
Last season, New Hope lost to Lewisburg 3-0 in the first round of the Class II state tournament.
Woolbright said she and Acosta have been working with the team in an open gym setting at the high school to make sure the players are ready for the start of the season. With 22 players expected to be in the program this season, which includes eight who played junior varsity and varsity last season, Woolbright knows building experience and knowledge of the sport will be crucial. That’s why she hopes she can build a middle school program that will help the high school program grow. She said she has talked to Smith about starting a feeder or intramural program this school year.
Woolbright knows building a program will take time, which is why she talked with her husband, Kenneth, and one of her daughters, Meredith, who plays softball at New Hope High, to make sure the family was OK with her coaching volleyball. Woolbright has three other daughters — Alexandra, Kensley, and Annie — so she is familiar with juggling responsibilities and managing her time. She said Meredith encouraged her to become an assistant volleyball coach last year and that she was equally supportive when she had the opportunity to take over for Holman.
The chance to be involved with volleyball again proved to Woolbright how much she enjoys the sport and how much she likes teaching and coaching the players.
“If you want to be successful at anything, you have to keep learning,” said Woolbright, who graduated from Brewer State Junior College (now Bevill State Community College) and the Mississippi University for Women. “Like you said, Laura Lee was not very familiar (with volleyball) and she had it even harder because she had to start from scratch with the players, and most of the players had never played any organized volleyball. If want to be successful and instill the correct techniques and the love of the game, you have to have a passion for it, and like I have already stated I am very competitive and I like to win, so I am not going to go out and freestyle it. We are going to work on having great hits and placing the hits where they need to be and we are going to work on our serves and try to do all we can.”
Woolbright said she and Acosta are going to work hard to try new drills and to try new ideas to keep the everything fresh and to encourage learning. She understands the inexperience of some of the players in the program might put the team behind other schools in the area that have had volleyball longer, but she is confident the Lady Trojans will be able to keep growing.
“I think so far everything has gone really well,” said Woolbright, who will start mandatory practices July 30. “I have been very pleased with every practice we have had and I have left felt really good about the team and the drills and all of the things I have been trying to pull together.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.