With the new school year upon us, it’s time once again for the Lady Pirate Volleyball team to serve up a new season at Pensacola State.
The Pirates are coming off a 17-11 season last year, including a 3-0 sweep against Panhandle Conference foe Gulf Coast College for the conference championship. The season ended early, however, as the team was ousted in two straight games of the state tournament.
This year’s Lady Pirates bring in a youthful group of girls featuring 10 freshmen, and will get things started with a double-header against Florida State College on Aug. 26 at the FSC Tournament in Jacksonville.
At the helm for the Lady Pirates is Coach Chris Laird, who enters his second season as the head coach for PSC.
One of the challenges the volleyball squad faces that is unique from the other school athletic teams is less conference play. Although the Panhandle Conference has five members including Pensacola State, only one other Conference opponent, Gulf Coast College in Panama City, fields a volleyball team.
“Having one conference opponent makes things harder and easier,” Laird said. “When we play Gulf Coast we know we only have to beat them three times. We know they’re going to be a better team than last year, but we only have to win three out of five. The benefit of that is we can spend more time focusing on the state tournament and the competition we face there. But on the flip side of that, we don’t get to see that level of state competition day-in and day-out, so it’s really a mixed bag.”
Without having the grind of a long conference schedule, the team has more opportunities to compete in season tournaments, including playing host for the Pirate Invitational Sept. 2 – 3 at the Life Fitness Center on the PSC Milton Campus, as well as the Pirate Challenge on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at the Lou Ross Center.
“The competition is a lot different, but it’s worth it, because we get to travel around to a lot of different places that most don’t get to go to,” said freshman Paige Schweigert.
In an area that boasts some of the best high school volleyball talents, Schweigert is the only Pensacola native on this year’s squad. Four players: Karson Hinds, Megan Gorey, and the freshman/sophomore sister duo of Sarah and Emily Guidry, are from nearby Okaloosa County.
Also on tap for the Lady Pirates this season are games against nearby Alabama colleges like the University of Mobile in Saraland, Faulkner State in Bay Minette and Jefferson Davis Community College in Brewton.
“A lot of people look at us and say ‘Oh, they’ve only got one team in their conference’ and put us down about it, but we get to branch off and play different and harder teams than we would if we were tied down to playing the same conference teams over and over,” said Hinds, a 5-foot-6 setter from Niceville.
Despite the lack of depth with sophomore players, Laird is convinced that he has the right leaders in place to help propel the team to a great season.
“Our returners have done a great job of being returners, so it’s a plus that the newcomers can come in and know that the sophomores have a pretty good knowledge of the game,” said Laird. “Just like with any team getting started out, the newness and playing with everybody is an issue, but when you put the sophomores in there with the freshman I think we’ll be fine.”
That sentiment showed as the Lady Pirates kicked off practice Aug. 1 at the Lou Ross Center. With sophomore leaders like Hinds and hitters Adrianne Woodard and Academic All-American Emily Guidry leading the way, the team looks to grow together and compete for a championship.
“Without a doubt Karson is one of our leaders. She’s our setter, and this is her second season so she knows exactly what I’m asking her to do,” Laird said. “Another girl that has a very good understanding of what’s going on is Tiffany Guerra. She’s been hurt and hasn’t been able to get in as much, but she’s done a great job of being a good teammate for the rest of the girls.”
At practices so far, the 5-foot-4 defensive specialist Guerra has spent most of the time on the sidelines, but remained in her practice attire and was often seen speaking to girls in the back of drill lines, seemingly playing the role of a player-assistant coach.
“We’ve already jelled together as a team, spending the last month together for conditioning and pre-season,” Hinds said. “We hang out all the time with each other, so I think that will help for a smooth transition with the freshmen and the sophomores.”
When asked to sum up the team in one phrase, the one most often uttered by players and Laird was simply “continuous improvement.”
“We’re further ahead now than we were last year, but we have to continue to get better. We don’t have to go through practice being angry, because you don’t want to play like that. We know what we have to do, which is work hard and play hard, but we’ve got to have fun doing it,” Laird said. “We have to keep improving, and let’s go from having a conference title to competing for a state title on a consistent basis.”