With back-to-back trips to the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s Elite Eight state championship tournament in Pelham in 2008 and 2009 behind them, the Lady Raiders desire nothing less than to finish out on top of everyone.
Today marks the first day of the 2010 season.
Pleasant Valley won’t begin its season until Saturday when it participates in the Saks Invitational which begins at 9 a.m. However, the Lady Raiders, led by 11th year coach Dana Bryant, are focused on the finals.
“We’re excited,” Bryant said. “…Our goal is to be one of the teams in the final. We want to be in that state championship. That’s our goal from the get-go.”
The Lady Raiders went 31-26 a year ago, placing second in the Class 3A, Region C tournament before being swept 3-0 (27-25, 25-9, 25-18) by Bayside Academy — winners of eight straight state championships, 15 in the past 18 years — in a match that was more hotly contested than the score would indicate, especially early on.
Pleasant Valley held the lead three times against the Lady Admirals, including once at 25-24 in a game where what appeared to be a scorekeeper’s error cost the Lady Raiders a valuable point.
Pleasant Valley won’t have to deal with Bayside this season even if they wind up in the championship game. The Lady Raiders have moved down to Class 2A as a result of the athletic association’s most recent biannual reclassification.
But that doesn’t mean the road back to the state tournament will be any easier. In their pathway is Sand Rock, a viable opponent in their own right in Area 11 play. But there’s plenty of competition beyond the classification, such as Lexington, the 2008 state champions.
Bryant has put together a schedule that includes matches against last year’s Class 4A runner-up Jacksonville as well as Class 6A schools Oxford and Homewood to prepare her team.
“I try to schedule good competition,” she said. “A lot of coaches may disagree with me but I like to play teams that are going to challenge my girls. We want to compete against what may be better than we are. That’s the mark of a good program.”
The Lady Raiders will be without graduated seniors Whitney and Jessica Glass but return plenty of experienced talent, including seniors middle hitter Jessie Kate Stewart, setter Ashley Bryant, defensive specialist Morgan Smith and juniors middle blocker Payton Lewis and outside hitters Jessica Boozer and Jordan Luttrell.
“Two years ago, the girls were just happy with getting to that state tournament and I was proud of them,” Bryant said.
After a summer filled with three-hour workouts, three days a week and a pair of camps focused on turning their weaknesses into strengths and making every person on their 15-player roster a more well-rounded player, the Lady Raiders have their eyes set squarely on the ultimate prize.
“They’ve really pushed themselves,” she said. “They know that’s what it’s going to take to reach that goal.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 235-3575.