The Newberry volleyball program has enjoyed sustained success the past five years.
There were four straight district titles, including two in Class 5A, back-to-back Class 1A state championship game appearances, and a state playoff appearance last year.
In 2019, Newberry lost in four sets to Sneads in the 1A title game under then head coach Sherrod Moseley.
Two years ago, in Hank Rone’s first season as head coach, the Panthers finished 23-4 and were state runners-up again in Class 1A.
Santa Fe College signees Nicole Everson and Paige Dinges, Rollins College signee Grace Oelrich, and Sarah Miller, the school’s all-time leader in assists (1,367), were key contributors to the Panthers’ run.
There are a few things that Rone will remember the most about that special time.
“The heart of those athletes,” he said. “They bought into what we were doing. Developing so many of them at a young age, and then watching them achieve so many great things as athletes.”
Last year, Newberry (18-11) lost in five sets to Union County (Lake Butler) in the Class 1A-District 7 championship game, but they defeated the Tigers on the road in the regional playoffs before losing at Taylor (Pierson) in the region final.
But this year Newberry is going through a rebuilding process.
Rone’s daughter, outside hitter Hannah Rone (146 kills, 157 digs in 2021), is the only senior left on the team that went to state.
“She played with one of the hardest working teams who had the best record in the history of our program,” he said. “She knows what it takes to get there.”
The interest level is at an all-time high, as Rone said Newberry had its biggest tryout they’ve ever had with 40 young athletes trying out this year for JV and varsity.
“The kids have worked hard all summer in the gym, and all made their mile run to end the summer,” he said. “There will be a few young ones make the varsity team this year. In the last two years, we have lost 10 impact players and we are in a rebuilding mode.”
Rone said the other two seniors, setter Evalyn Guild (96 digs) and middle Alexis Boyd (91 kills, 100 blocks, 68 digs), have shown great leadership throughout the summer.
“They all have done a tremendous job during the off season leading and being at all summer workouts,” he said. “You need senior leadership and I think we will be okay there.”
Rone expects sophomore defensive specialist Malana Kennard and sophomore outside hitter Chloe Jones to step up.
Junior Sarah Watson, who is a 6-foot middle, is coming along but hasn’t played in two years.
Junior DS/OH Hailey Tharp and DS/Setter Hanna Templeton, a rising junior, “have come a long way this past year.”
“If they can be consistent, we might surprise some teams,” Rone said.
The Panthers will play another challenging schedule in 2022, opening with Class 6A Buchholz at home on Tuesday, Aug. 23.
“Buchholz is a big game to open the season for us, a 6A school with a great tradition and great athletes. It’s a big test for us,” Rone said.
Newberry will also play a home-and-home against Class 4A Keystone Heights. The Panthers will host the Indians on Tuesday, Aug. 30, and travel to KHHS on Tuesday, Sept. 13.
“They’re an up-and-coming program,” Rone said. “Great Setter and some athletic hitters.”
The Panthers will also play a home-and-home series against Class 4A Suwannee, traveling to Live Oak on Thursday, Sept. 1, and hosting the Bulldogs on Thursday, Oct. 6.
“Suwannee has a great young coach that is putting together a nice program out there and they have a big team and big outsides that can terminate the ball,” Rone said.
Dixie County (Cross City), which advanced to its first final four this past season, is in the district this year with Newberry, along with Chiefland, Trenton, and Cedar Key.
“We have a really solid schedule that hopefully helps us as we get ready districts.”
Dixie County returns a lot of players and hired James Bendel as its new head coach, who Rone calls “an extremely knowledgeable head coach.”
“They are the team to beat in our district I believe, but Trenton and Chiefland have some great returning players that can put the ball away,” Rone said.
The key to a potential winning season and postseason bid comes down to “consistent” serving and receiving, “and not give up easy points early on as our young hitters develop.”
“Our hitters are getting better every day and if we can get the hitters to keep being better and peak in October, we might be in the hunt,” Rone said. “We are really athletic on the back row and early on we will have to try and wear bigger teams down, by making them work hard for a point.”
Rone may have to do his best coaching this year.
“I think me having patience knowing you can’t run as much tempo as I want and working hard on being consistent on what we do best, and really focusing on what our team’s strengths are,” he said.