Ali Roberts shines as Lady Cougars reach season midpoint with 3-1 win over Thomasville

Published 7:00 am Saturday, September 2, 2023

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Ali Roberts was a “threat” on the right side in the Lady Cougars’ 3-1 victory over Thomasville.

Head coach Kelsey Harrell and assistant coach Delany Mueller shifted the junior outside hitter from the left side to the right side for Thursday’s game. 

“We want to move you to the right side, and we want a threat,” Mueller told Roberts before the game. “She was dominant.”

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Roberts racked up 16 of 17 successful digs on the night and was perfect on 13 received serves. She had two aces and five kills.

The Lady Cougars started strong and won the first two sets winning 25-12 and 25-19. Harrel said the team struggled in the third set, losing 25-17, then turned it back on in the fourth, closing out the match with a 25-14 win.

The match saw the return of Sophomore middle-hitter Elijah Grace Cawvey. Cawvey has been out with a foot injury since the season’s second week. Harrel said she’s happy to have a “dominant” player like Cawvey back on the court.

The win against Thomasville marks the halfway point for the regular season. They reach the midpoint with a record of 7-6.

The first half of the season has had its “ups and downs,” according to junior setter Sybil Lee. 

She said the team is getting better as the season progresses and that they’ve been playing their “most consistent” volleyball lately.

The Lady Cougars started the season with three consecutive losses. After the third loss, Grace went on a five-game winning streak. Four of the five wins came in the same week, and Harrel said that week was the defining moment of the season so far.

The Lady Cougars traveled to Atlanta following the season defining week for a tournament. The team played four games in the competition, going 1-3. Harrell said the tournament did not go as planned, but it opened the players’ eyes to some of their weaknesses.

“It’s hard in a season when you may lose a game, then win and lose again,” Harrell said. “‘They’re saying we have a problem, but we’re also winning.’ That weekend, we really identified the problem.”

Lee is a co-captain of the team with junior outside hitter Kate Poitevint. Harrell said the two have been integral to the team’s success. Out of 10 stat categories on, Lee or Poitevint are first in more than half. 

“We wouldn’t be here without them,” Harrell said. “Looking at the numbers, it’s pretty clear that KP and Sybil stand out when it comes down to execution.”

Harrell said the two do more than just fill the stat sheet. Harrell praised Poitevint, an offensive specialist, for her willingness and ability to play on the back row, a defensive position.

“You don’t really see many, in high school, six-foot girls playing back row,” Harrell said. “That says a lot about her as a player, way more than just her hitting would say.” 

Harrell said Lee’s most significant contribution to the team is her ability to stay cool under pressure. The team looks to Lee as an emotional leader, and she takes that responsibility in stride.

“My defining factor, I feel like, in sports is patience,” Lee said. “I don’t get mad or frustrated. I mean, I do, I just don’t let it show.”

Harrell said Lee’s ability to hide her frustration is essential because her reactions are the team’s reactions. If she’s frustrated, the team will feel frustrated. Lee said frustration can lead to making errors.

“I know when she’s frustrated, but I know that [the team] doesn’t know,” Harrell said. “I can sense it even if it’s the way she’s responding… She’s a team player. It’s not about her.”

Harrell has also been impressed with freshman libero Keagan Belcher, junior setter Sarah Kate Crews and junior outside hitter Ali Roberts this season.

Belcher is involved in almost every play on the court as a libero. Harrell said it can be difficult for a young player to take on that responsibility, but Belcher has handled it. 

“She has done super well,” Harrell said. “I’m very excited to see her grow.”

This season is Crews’ second season ever playing volleyball, but Harrell said the small amount of experience doesn’t show in her play. Crews has been asked to play in multiple spots on the court this season, and Harrell said she has done her job every time.

“When she allows her gut reaction, that instinct, to take over,” Harrell said. “The things that she does, I’m like, “I can’t believe that you’ve only played for a year.’”

Harrell said Roberts’ serving this season has been “really impressive to see.” She leads the team in total aces and aces per set.

Elijah Grace Cawvey made her return tonight and is cleared to play for the rest of the season. Harrel said she made team-wide adjustments around Cawvey early in the season and had to abandon those adjustments when she got hurt. Harrell said she looks forward to seeing what she will bring to the team as the season progresses.

“Losing her was a big loss. However, the team couldn’t have handled it better… We’ve done this well without Elijah Grace, and I know what Elijah Grace can bring to the table.”

Harrell said her girls have grown as players and a team throughout the first half of the season and still have room to grow.

“The potential that we have as a team hasn’t been fully met,” Harrell said. “We’ve seen glimpses of it… There’s nothing saying that they can’t reach that potential. They’re going to have to realize we have more potential than, probably, what we think.”

Harrell said mental toughness will be the most critical area to grow through the rest of the season. The team has no seniors, and Harrell said the lack of “more mature leadership” has been a struggle for the team in certain high-pressure situations. Harrell said the players need to grow in their mental strength as a group to combat that.

“We can’t allow the fact that we don’t have a senior to be the reason we’re held back,” Harrell said. “That’s going to be the big step for us through the second half. The whole team getting on the same page, like, ‘Ok, we’ve got to be more mentally tough.’”

The team is used to doing things as a group. Lee said everyone on the team is friends with each other. They all eat at the same lunch table, and on game days, they wear matching volleyball shirts. 

“In my three years of varsity volleyball, we’re the closest team that I’ve been a part of,” Lee said. “We’re almost like sisters.”

Looking ahead, Harrell and Lee both said they’ve circled Georgia Christian School (GCS) on the schedule. The Lady Cats play the region opponent on Tuesday and will likely see them again in the region tournament.

The team played GCS earlier in the season, losing 3-0. Harrell said GCS made them look like they “had never even practiced before that game.”

“We all are a little hungry and ready for that matchup to, you know, rewrite some history,” Harrell said.

Lee said she views GCS as one of Grace Christian Academy’s biggest rivals and looks forward to enacting some payback in the region tournament.

“Last year during our region tournament, they beat us, and that game still lives in my mind,” Lee said. “Another regional faceoff is really what I want to see. I want to see them again next week and then really bring the fight during the region tournament.” 

Lee said she’s excited for the rest of the season and looks forward to growing as a player. She said she wants to be more patient and develop her team communication skills. She also wants to improve her back-row defense. 

The Lady Cougars travel to Valdosta on Tuesday to take on the Georgia Christian School Lady Generals.