This fall marks Year 6 for Albany Alexander volleyball coach Bradd Jeffers. In his first five seasons, Alexander has won four straight Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division titles, five straight sectional titles, four straight district crowns and back-to-back regional championships. All told, the Spartans are 115-16 in games Jeffers has coached. The goal this year is to claim the state title that slipped away in 2007.
This fall marks Year 6 for Albany Alexander volleyball coach Bradd Jeffers. In his first five seasons, Alexander has won four straight Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division titles, five straight sectional titles, four straight district crowns and back-to-back regional championships. All told, the Spartans are 115-16 in games Jeffers has coached.
Under the direction of Jeffers, Alexander has continuously climbed the ladder of success, and last year Alexander’s climb had them on the brink of state supremacy which has Jeffers and his Lady Spartans extremely hungry in 2008. The goal is to claim the state title that slipped away in 2007.
“The expectations are so much higher in our program now compared to a few years ago,” said Jeffers just minutes after his Lady Spartans dropped three straight sets after winning the first in the 2007 Division III state title match to Lima Central Catholic. “I think that is what makes this hurt so much for the girls. The goal wasn’t to win the regional and make it back to the final four; the goal was to win the whole thing.”
If those were the words of a proud yet disappointed coach nine months ago at the post-match press conference at Wright State University’s Nutter Center, you can imagine how rejuvenated Jeffers is when he talks about his 2008 squad that returns all but two (Lauren Thomas and Allie Sayers) from a roster that found itself just a couple of sets shy of returning to Albany with a state title.
“The word that comes to mind is excited,” said Jeffers who inherited a program in 2003 that was coming off of a 7-18 record in 2002 before flipping that to 18-7 in his first season, a season that included the school’s first district title. “These kids are so excited about the upcoming season. I am excited about the upcoming season. I am excited about some of the new coaches we have on staff. I am excited about the work ethic that these kids bring to the gym every time we go to work.
“The work ethic of these kids is second to none,” the exuberant coach continued. “The way they practice is extraordinary to watch. It’s really an honor to coach these kids because their attitudes and work ethic are like nothing I have ever experienced.”
Alexander returns several weapons at the net including a pair of senior middle hitters in Betsy Irwin and Megan McCoy. Irwin exploded on the southeast volleyball scene last year with a breakout junior season, and now, after a great off-season of work on the court and in the weight room, Alexander is expecting that same type of breakout for McCoy this fall.
The middles serve as great complements to the outside attack for the Lady Spartans. Senior Whitney Smith returns as the go-to girl on the outside. Smith showed her all-around skill set in last year’s state tournament recording 23 kills in the semi-final and then despite struggling at the net in the finals still recorded 24 digs in the back row. Opposite of Smith and hitting strong side when Smith goes to the back row will be sophomore Julie Els. Els received a lot of big-game experience last year as a freshman, and she is now ready to take on a more substantial role in 2008.
The biggest difference in the high-powered Alexander attack will be the way the ball gets to the Lady Spartan heavy hitters. The last two seasons, libero Lauren Thomas has led the Spartan defense and setter Lauren Raines has quarterbacked the offense. With graduation taking the all-Ohioan, Thomas, Jeffers has asked Raines to go to the back row and take over the defensive specialist role.
“It’s definitely a big change, but I like it,” said Raines of the change to libero from setter where she helped lead the Spartans to the final four as a sophomore and then all the way to the state finals last season as a junior. “I loved setting, but this has been a great challenge. LT (Lauren Thomas) was incredible in the back row, so I just want to work hard to fill that defensive role. The game is completely different. As a setter you are constantly thinking offense and looking at how you want to attack your opponent’s defense. Now, at libero, your mind has to completely go on the defensive and scout the other team’s offense.
“I played the back row as a freshman and I have played some libero for my club team as well, so I have some experience,” Raines continued. “Setting has really helped my hands become stronger and now in the back row that helps me be able to cheat up and still be able to play the high ball with my hands.”
Now, with Thomas lost to graduation and Raines asked to move to libero to replace Thomas, Jeffers will ask Sarah Radekin to take over the setting position and run the 5-1 offense. Radekin, a 5-7 senior, has worked extremely hard throughout the off-season. Coach Jeffers said that Radekin’s improvement in terms of her hands and ball control as been outstanding. A solid Alexander defense as well as the dominate list of Alexander hitters should help in the transition.
“Our team has a lot of confidence in Sarah,” said Raines who recorded 57 assists last year in Alexander’s five-set thrilling victory in the state semifinals against Gilmour Academy. “She is an awesome setter and it is amazing how quickly she is learning and executing everything in our offense. I know how tough it was for me to learn things as a sophomore and our offense is much more complicated now.”
The Lady Spartans will also use some returnees to fill some other voids. Haley Born will step in and play the weak side replacing Sayers. At 5-9, the junior gives the Alexander offense one of the best backside weapons the program has had during this impressive stretch of years, and she is also a very solid blocker. Alexander will also look to junior Nicole Ogg and sophomore Amber McLaughlin to sure up their defense.
A number of incredible programs from the Cincinnati area as well as the northern part of the state have had incredible runs on the volleyball court; however, few teams from the southeast have stormed on the statewide scene quite like the Lady Spartans have done in the past few years. The few programs like Frankfort Adena and Williamsport Westfall that have had incredible runs of their own have always struggled to find a high level of competition without traveling extreme distances. This is an obstacle that Alexander has faced throughout this amazing stretch; however, when asked how Alexander continues to get better Jeffers turned again to the work ethic of his kids.
“It’s like I said earlier, these kids work so hard,” said Jeffers. “These kids are constantly improving because of how they go about their business. These kids are so competitive in every drill of every practice. They truly want to be perfect. I know they have high expectations for themselves. These girls want to win a state title, and they will be devastated if they don’t; however, the coaching staff is trying to present them with one goal: work hard, keep improving, and see how good you can become.”
Alexander is expected by most to cruise to its fifth straight TVC-Ohio crown and most assume that they will do it in undefeated fashion; however, posting a perfect overall season – a feat the Lady Spartans accomplished in both 2005 and 2006 – will be an extremely difficult task when you consider who they play outside of the Tri Valley Conference.
The Lady Spartans will return to the Celina Tournament, a tournament that a year ago fielded two eventual state champions, a runner-up, and two other district champions, as well as a quad match at River View about halfway through the season. Alexander will also host its own Spartans Volleyball Invite in early October before welcoming a very good Marion Pleasant program in the regular season finale.