Last year was a special year for the Dixie County (Cross City) volleyball team, which finished 16-10 and won both a district and regional title and advanced to its first state semifinal in school history.
The Bears should be considered one of the favorites in Class 1A in 2022.
However, this year they’ll have a new coach as James Bendel Jr. takes over for Kelsie Parrott, who stepped down to pursue a master’s degree and is also getting married in September.
“Being chosen to lead the Dixie County volleyball program is a very humbling and grateful position to be in,” Bendel said. “I hope to take the lessons I’ve learned from numerous other coaches from around the state and find what works best for our team. We hope to create an exciting and fun environment in which the players will grow and succeed in.”
The coaches he learned from start with Joe Deluca, the Gainesville Juniors director who gave him his first shot at coaching, along with Santa Fe coach Eric Marshall, who led the Raiders to their first state title last year, Chad Davis, who won back-to-back state titles at P.K. Yonge in 2014 and 2015. Other coaching mentors include Newberry coach Hank Rone, Francisco “Paqui” Peon, plus, Nicole Stout, Jason LaBorde, Angel Rivera, Vanja Todorovic, and Stephen Shepherd.
Bendel, who will be working with assistant coach Taylor St. Laurent this upcoming season, said that after talking to the retuning players and parents about last season, things seemed to change in a positive way after the second Chiefland match.
“The team seemed to come together as one cohesive unit after that match,” he said. “The team, along with fan support, made a very impressive playoff run and hopefully that cohesiveness will continue to grow and allow us to go farther this season.”
The 2021 team was led by the Lady Bears Player-of-the-Year Baylie Robson and a strong libero in Aubrey Thomas.
“They have left big shoes to fill but this year’s team is up to the challenge of filling them,” Bendel said.
Thomas ranked first in Class 1A with 931 digs while Robson ranked fourth in the state with 636 assists and 13th in 1A with 61 service aces.
However, the Bears do have some key contributors returning in outside hitter Katie Roberts, setter Peyton Hatcher, middle Paris Williams, and right-side hitter Anna Ellison.
Roberts is back for her senior season after leading the Bears with 300 kills.
“Katie is expected to be a six rotational player,” Bendel said. “She will be a steadying force on defense and an electrifying player on offense.”
She ranked eighth in the state in Class 1A in kills, while Hatcher, a rising senior, ranked seventh in 1A with 512 assists.
Williams ranked third in the state with 131 total blocks as a sophomore and Ellison ranked first with a .549 hitting percentage as a junior.
Some of the younger players that the Bears will be counting on this year include right side hitter Jaidyn Brown, setter/outside hitter Kailey Edmonds, and middle Timber Lord.
The Bears will play a challenging schedule to help them get ready for another lengthy postseason run.
Bendel said all the district games will be competitive “as they are all long-time rivals from the area.”
“All of the teams have some amazing returning players and some new up and coming athletes,” he said.
One of the most important regular season games will be at 8-time defending state champion Sneads on Aug. 25th.
“Sneads was last year’s state champion and the team who knocked the Lady Bears out of the playoffs, so this will be a great measuring stick to see how we have grown as a team,” he said. “We will also see some great competition at the Oak Hall tournament in early October.”
So, the pieces are there to make another run to the state semifinals, and possibly a state championship appearance for the first time in school history.
However, Bendel said the team must play for each other and they must embrace team over the individual player.
“Working hard in practice whether you are a starter or a substitute who is always ready to step up and bring the energy level up when called upon,” he noted. “Our philosophy is based on serving at a high level, serve receive at a high level and having a defense that will pass the ball so that we can run our offense. Defense wins the big matches when done at a high level.”
Dixie County will open the regular season on Monday, Aug. 22, at Bell at 6:30 p.m.