JONESBORO, Ga. —Despite everything that’s been different about playing volleyball through a pandemic, in many ways, it’s like deja vu for the Elite Scholars program.
This time last year, Elite Scholars was preparing to face Gordon Lee in the Class AA state semifinals. The Royal Knights defeated Gordon Lee in straight sets to punch their ticket to the Class AA state championship game against Coosa—a match they’d lose 3-2.
Fast forward to this season, and coach Veronica Mays finds herself in a similar place, getting set to face Gordon Lee once again today at 12:30 p.m. with another state championship game berth on the line. But Mays is quick to tell you that that’s about where the similarities with 2019 and 2020 begin and end.
“It’s just been different,” Mays said. “Did I think we’d be back at this point again? I felt there was a great possibility if we had all our kids returning from last year. I said if everybody’s coming back the, okay, yes, we could probably make another run.”
But then the coronavirus pandemic showed up back in March and escalated in July and August right before the season began. Clayton County Schools decided it would be all-virtual learning for the fall semester, and there were times where it was doubtful if fall sports would even be played.
That, Mays said, did her program’s numbers no favors.
“The concerns about Covid, nobody knew what was going on,” she said. “When we got back into school, everything changed and some of the girls’ parents decided that they weren’t going to play. Then I questioned things for a second. Then we had our season revised. At a time we were only able to play seven matches, then I started questioning again. But with every hurdle that’s been thrown our way, I’ve seen these girls’ desire to win grow. That’s why we play the games.”
Mays says it’s been senior leadership that has anchored the Royal Knights through a topsy-turvy season with unprecedented challenges. Ranyla Griggs (outside hitter), Ezinne Ifi (middle hitter), Zakiya Freeman (right-side hitter), Riley Sanders (right-side hitter) and Carli Webb (middle blocker) have become such a cohesive unit that Mays doesn’t even see individuals on the court anymore.
“Those six girls who are basically my starting group, they’re all seniors and really, it’s hard to single out anyone, because there’s not us without one of them,” she said. “They’ve become such a nucleus this season. I have great hitters, I have a great setter, I have great defenders. But one player couldn’t be who she is without the other girl. So when I look on that floor, I don’t even see them. I see the group they’ve formed themselves to be.”
Despite having a senior-heavy bunch, the terrain of this season hasn’t been easy to navigate, even beyond the pandemic. Last year’s team ran the table in Area 5A/5AA. This year’s bunch (19-6, 9-4) took some lumps, including back-to-back losses to Lovett and Pace Academy in the area tournament. But in state tournament matches against Oglethorpe County, Bremen and Woodville-Tompkins, Elite Scholars hasn’t lost a single set.
This year’s Gordon Lee squad is coming in hot as well. The Lady Trojans haven’t lost a match since falling 2-0 to St. Pius X Catholic back on September 19. And today’s 12:30 match will feature a Lady Trojans bunch that will want to exact some revenge on the team that bounced them from the state tournament last year.
But Elite Scholars has some avenging to do as well. No, Coosa, the team that defeated Elite in the last two state championship games, won’t be waiting on the other side of the bracket if the Royal Knights advance. If Mays and company can get past Gordon Lee, Elite will either face Pace Academy or Union County.
Pace Academy has defeated Elite Scholars twice this season—once in a 2-1 win during the regular season and then a 2-0 sweep in the region tournament. But regardless of who would line up on the other side of the net in a potential state championship game, the unfinished business of winning a state crown will be present.
First things first: Elite has to beat Gordon Lee, which won’t be an easy task.
“I’ve had the opportunity to watch them play,” Mays said. “And of course, we played them last year so it’ll be a familiar opponent. They have power hitters like we do, so one of our keys is to control the defensive end, making sure we’re in position and do a good job not only digging but producing offense from our digs.”
One thing’s for sure: From navigating lineup changes due to COVID-19 to overcome tough opponents on the regular season schedule, Mays knows her team is battle tested.
“With everything that’s come our way, we never underestimate the heart of these girls,” she said. “I know that they really want to win, and especially for my seniors, I know they want to get back and have another shot at winning a state championship.”