Everything about the 2020 season left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Benjamin Russell volleyball team. The inability to have a normal run-up to the season due to COVID-19. A loss to Stanhope Elmore to close its season that robbed the squad of an area title.
With five seniors and a bevy of juniors returning to the Wildcats in 2021, a now-veteran Benjamin Russell group is returning with a pent-up anger, and they’re taking last year’s frustrations out in summer workouts and conditioning.
“It really has been amazing,” Benjamin Russell head coach Magan Ford said. “Just yesterday I was sitting there watching them do sprints and I got chill bumps, just seeing them push each other and pick each other up. I know that sounds kind of silly, but seeing their hard work come together, come full circle toward the end of the summer — it has been great.”
Ford stated she’s enjoyed seeing her upperclassmen embrace leadership roles within the team.
Senior Zaria Roberson posted the team’s highest kill percentage at 52.5 percent in 2020. Her tall, athletic presence in the middle of the floor and emotional leadership of the team is essential for this year’s outfit according to Ford.
Then there’s junior Ryann Ruffin, who’s stepped up to become one of the squad’s biggest vocal presences.
Senior Janiyah Martin, nicknamed “Jam” by the Wildcats, returns as the team’s leading server in terms of aces from 2020, a player Ford noted leads by example more than her voice.
Alongside seniors Ka’Shunna McKinney, Emma Tapley and Laura Thames, the younger players on the Wildcats’ roster have no shortage of guides to look up to.
“They’ve done a good job of embracing who they are and finding their own identity,” Ford said. “They’re trying to be the best version of themselves and be the best leader they can be.”
One such key youngster will be sophomore Kennedy Tate.
Tate will be the team’s setter again this season, making her a key cog in the Wildcats’ attack.
“She got thrown into the fire last year as a freshman,” Ford said. “She did a great job. I expect big things from her.”
While the Wildcats return a lot in 2021, one big loss from the previous season is first-team All-Outlook performer Timira Lawson.
Lawson led Benjamin Russell in both kills and blocks, bringing a unique skillset to the squad.
Ford said there’s been a group response to replace her.
“It’s hard to replace somebody like Timira. I think they’ve done a really good job staying true to themselves, not trying to be Timira or do what Timira did. It’s kind of a collective effort by the seniors, they’re really doing a great job.”
As the team continues attacking its sprints and lifting, the on-court development phase of the summer is gearing up.
The Wildcats are starting to have open gyms, giving players a chance to get touches on the ball and begin developing the chemistry so crucial to the sport.
On July 26 they’ll host a playdate featuring Horseshoe Bend and Central High School of Clay County, a chance to see live action against a few local high schools.
“Getting in those game-like situations to figure out what we need to focus on is the next step,” Ford said.