Photo by Brian Paglia / Ola seniors Giovanna Brown (left) and Olivia Botts and the rest of the Lady Mustangs volleyball team are looking to recapture the county championship this weekend.
McDONOUGH — The reminders of what it will take have been steady the past two seasons.
The rapid 24-win drop in the record. The summer camp that ended in a disappointing tournament performance. The series of losses this season to county opponents.
Yet, for Ola’s volleyball team every disappointment been a trigger for its motivation to return to the elite status it held in Henry County as recently as two seasons ago.
The Lady Mustangs have largely succeed. Ola is 21-7 overall and 6-3 in Area 4-AAAAA, an area so large and competitive the Georgia High School Association is allowing five teams, instead of the usual four, to qualify for the state tournament. As of Tuesday night, the Lady Mustangs were ranked No. 8 by PrepCountry.com.
That’s a far cry from last season, when Ola went 16-21, though still made its fourth consecutive state tournament appearance.
“Last year was a rebuilding year,” Ola coach Joe Caldwell said.
Indeed, the Lady Mustangs lost seven seniors off a team that went 40-15 and swept the county and area championships. Caldwell made the transition from assistant to head coach with a young and inexperienced team.
It made for a challenging season. At one point the Lady Mustangs lost eight straight matches early in the season. They hit another 6-game skid around the county and area tournaments.
“It was a growing year for us,” Ola senior libero Olivia Botts said.
“It was tough,” Lady Mustangs middle hitter Giovanna Brown said. “We were basically a whole new team last year.”
The growing started last season in the area tournament when Ola defeated Woodland — a team it had lost to twice already — to make the state tournament.
It continued during the summer when most of the team went to a three-day camp with other high schools at Florida State in late July. The camp was filled with scrimmages, individual training and ended with a huge tournament.
Exept the tournament didn’t quite go the way Ola hoped.
“We were disappointed,” Botts said. “In the tournament we did worse than we thought we could. But that just triggered us to work harder.”
So have losses this season to Locust Grove, Luella, Woodland and Union Grove. The loss to Luella was Ola’s first to the Lady Lions in school history.
“There’s no pushovers in the county anymore,” Caldwell said.
The Lady Mustangs bring those losses in mind into this weekend’s Henry County volleyball championship at Woodland, an event they have dominated. Ola won three straight county championships from 2008-10. Last season, eventual champion Locust Grove knocked the Lady Mustangs out in the first round.
But Ola knows its not the same team that left the county tournament in shock last season.
They have Brown, an imposing presence in the middle who leads the team in kills (138) and blocks (21). Botts leads the team in digs (79), while Kiara Whitaker leads the team in assists (197) and aces (55).
The real difference, players and coach Caldwell said, doesn’t show up in the scorebook.
It’s the team’s new motto, one inspired by last season’s trials and disappointment — communication, coverage and celebration.
“When we’ve got those going, we’re tough to beat,” Botts said.
“We’re at our best when we’re loud, cheerful,” Brown said, “when we come together as a team. Even the people on the bench.”