Much like the Newberry volleyball team’s recent run, Bell has had its own success with three straight district titles, two final fours, and one state championship game appearance.
Drue Barry, who enters his fourth season as the Bulldogs' head coach, said it’s the pride that all the girls played with that he remembers most.
“Most of the girls that have played at Bell have attended school here their entire lives,” he said. “I believe this drives them to do their best for their school and their community. We have only had a few girls play any type of club ball, so their continued success is due to a great work ethic and determination.”
That hard work is paying off again as Bell is off to a 3-0 start, including a sweep of Trenton on Monday night (25-5, 25-22, 25-16).
Barry said before the season he wasn’t quite sure if his program was in a rebuilding mode or a reloading one.
“I knew we had a lot of talent coming back but we lost a lot of experience the last couple of years,” he said. “The girls put in the work over the summer in the weight room and on the court.”
The Class 1A Bulldogs gained a lot of valuable experience by attending the FSU Elite team camp and the Valdosta State University scrimmage camp.
That carried over into the preseason with wins against Class 5A Columbia (Lake City) and 2A Countryside Christian.
“I was proud of the team's effort during their two preseason games,” Barry said. “I believe they grew up a lot individually and as a team. We had been stressing this summer to have a short memory and that paid off in the fifth set against Columbia.”
It also paid off against Countryside Christian.
After losing to the Minutemen over the summer in the Valdosta State camp championship, Bell would get its revenge.
Up two games to one heading to the fourth set, Countryside came out “extremely strong” and took a 19-3 lead. It appeared the match would be even.
“The girls had to dig deep to try and make the score respectful,” Barry said. “We started playing better and never gave up and you could see the confidence start to rise and they refused to quit even when the score got to 24-17.”
The Bulldogs went on a run and pulled out a 26-24 victory to win the match 3-1.
“I've never been part of a comeback like that,” Barry said. “I told the girls after the game to take that mentality into the season and know that no matter the score, the game is never over. It allows them to know they are in every set regardless of the score and also they learned that they have to trust each other and have one another’s back.”
In the season opener on Monday, Aug. 22, Bell faced Dixie County (Cross City) in a rematch of last year’s regional final won by the Bears.
“We were in the same district last year, but the new alignment has us not even in the same region this year,” Barry said. “We split with them last year with each team winning two times, but they won the game that mattered.”
It was close, but Bell swept the match 25-16, 26-24, 25-23.
“I'm blessed this year with a great group of seniors and their leadership has been very evident so far,” Barry said. “Ashlee Thomas has been hammering balls from the outside this year. She has one of the strongest work ethics I have been around in this program.”
Thomas was second on the team in kills last year as a junior (270) behind graduated senior Michelle Heilig (363).
Senior Sydney Waddle is the setter.
Last year, Waddle was second on the team as a junior in assists (187) behind Emma Hutto (589), who finished with both an Associate of Arts degree and her CNA license before her high school graduation.
“Sydney has run the offense flawlessly so far,” Barry said. “She has some of the best hands we have had to come through our program, and we have had some great setters in the past. She is a fierce competitor and is determined to do whatever it takes to win.”
Her twin sister Stacy Waddle had knee surgery, but she has been an extra coach on the bench.
“She knows the game and has been very valuable to me this season,” Barry said.
Perhaps the biggest surprise so far this season is the play of Tracie Smith, who only had 26 kills as a junior. She already has 29 kills in just three games.
“She has really developed into a strong outside hitter and has become one of our best hitters,” Barry said.
The Bulldogs will also be counting on their underclassmen this year.
Junior libero Karys York, who finished third last year as a sophomore with 294 digs, will anchor the defensive side.
“She brings a very athletic style of play that will be very beneficial to our success this season,” Barry said.
Juniors Amani Salem and McKinnley Downing will play right side for the ‘Dogs and Barry said, “they both bring incredible athleticism to that position.”
Salem led the team with 62 aces last year.
Junior Hannah Collett and sophomore Jodi Waddle will be counted on to produce in the middle.
“They are not the biggest pair of middles as far as height goes but they make things happen with their competitive nature and how athletic they are,” Barry said. “Hannah also brings a great serve in the mix.”
Bell, which will once again play a challenging schedule, defeated Newberry in four sets last Thursday.
“We have played Newberry in some great battles over the last couple of seasons,” Barry said. “They beat us twice last year with both games going five sets. They also beat us the season before in the final four to let them advance to the state championship game.”
Bell, which has a home district game against Lafayette (Mayo) tonight at 6:30 p.m., travels to Union County (Lake Butler) on Thursday. The Tigers, who are in Bell’s new district this year, swept the Bulldogs last year.
“We always try to play a good, tough schedule,” Barry said. “I have never been a coach to try and get a lot of easy wins. I believe that if you face adversity during the season, it will play off when it matters.”
Bell will compete in 1A-District 6 with defending district 7 champion Union County, Lafayette, Fort White, and Branford, which is 6-0 this season.
“We have a new district this year that includes Branford and Union County so they will be big matchups during the season,” Barry said. “We always have intense games when we play Branford so that is always fun.”
For this to be a good season for Bell, Barry said his team will have to “go out and play our best every set.”
“We need to make the other team earn every point they make, and we have done a great job with that so far this season,” he said. “We must make sure we play our game and not let the other team dictate the pace of the game. We have also done a great job staying calm even when we fall behind.”
The pieces are there to be in the mix for another postseason appearance.
“Our goal this year is the same as every year and that is to win district and make a lengthy playoff run,” Barry added.