Pope volleyball uses defense to defend
Led by its senior crop of, from left, Sophie Gould, Renee Bissel, Zeren Yesilova, Madison Mims, Caroline Wiseman and Ava Vlkovic, Pope will rely on defensive play as it bids to defend its Class AAAAAA state championship.
Even without leading hitter Stella Dees, will miss the season after undergoing shoulder surgery, Pope’s goal of winning another Class AAAAAA state title is well intact.
If the Lady Greyhounds could overcome adversity to win state last season, chances are they can do it again.
Things did not look promising for Pope in 2018 following a weak showing at the Cobb County Championships in early October. Dees was injured during the tournament and missed the Area 7AAAAAA tournament the following week, where Pope finished second.
For the state playoffs, the Lady Greyhounds needed to undergo a lineup overhaul. They started running a 6-2 format, which better suited the team.
With Dees returning to the lineup in time for the playoffs, new-look Pope beat two-time defending state champion Harrison in the opening round, then came back from two sets down to beat Apalachee. From there, it was on to south Georgia to beat Glynn Academy in straight sets in the quarterfinals, beating Creekview on the road in the semifinals and coming back from a set down to beat Allatoona for the championship.
Other factors contributed to Pope’s first state championship in seven years, with all the matches being on the road.
“One of the things that led to our success was that we traveled over 1,000 miles across the state of Georgia in that period of time, and we played in some crazy gyms,” Pope coach Shawn Darling said. “I think that really helped strengthen us mentally to prepare for a setting like a state championship.”
While the Lady Greyhounds are going to miss Dees, who totaled 414 kills last season, they will utilize other strengths, such as their defensive play. Pope is loaded with liberos and middle blockers, and senior libero Ava Vrkovic is confident about Pope’s defensive abilities.
“We feel our defense is very good,” said Vrkovic, a Georgia State commit. “We’re excited. The ball will never drop.”
Vrkovic and senior Zeren Yesilova, who averaged 11 digs a match, both bring experience at libero. Sophomore Ayanna Rogers is returning in the middle, where she plans to block alongside senior Caroline Wiseman. Fellow senior Madison Mims plans to come in and set, while also handling blocking from the right side.
“Our defense with our (defensive specialists) and liberos, hopefully we will frustrate some teams defensively,” Darling said. “We kind of know who we are. We kind of figured out what is going to work for us. They love each other and want to play for each other.”
Pope will also have to account for graduating setter Eliza Dees, who is now playing beach volleyball at Austin Peay. Sophomore Ella Burriss, who was heavily involved in the playoffs a year ago, is the leading candidate to run the offense.