COVINGTON, GA -- Not only was Thursday the first day of school for Newton County students, but for the Eagles volleyball team it represented the start of the volleyball season.
It marked the first day of official season practices as the Lady Eagles begin preparations for their season opener against Heritage on August 6.
Head coach Maggie Johnston’s team, used the early parts of practice to do some individual work in groups of about two or three in order to work off some of the back-to-school doldrums. Johnston’s team spent the summer working out, but on the first official day back, it was the first step to starting the season with their main goal in mind -- state playoffs.
“I'm looking forward to the girls having the expectation of getting through the first and second round of state, Johnston said. “Last year was the first year in school history that we won the first round of the state playoffs, and they were very close to winning the second round. So I think I think the girls expect to accomplish that. So I think the biggest thing here is, like, now we have girls who have been there and they're hungry for it. So I'm excited about that.”
Eastside has long been the standard bearer of volleyball in the county, and the 2018 season was no exception. Eastside enters this season more experienced after coming off of relative success, finishing the year with an overall record of 28-15, including going 9-1 in region 4-AAAA play. In the postseason, the girls took down Shaw High of Columbus, 3-0. In the next round, the Eagles were one point shy of advancing, but ultimately lost 3-2 to the Academy of Richmond County.
Johnston says that the returning girls have the expectations of winning and are more than willing to help some of the new players along in order to integrate a winning culture.
"We definitely have a couple of returners that are going to help lead the team and find their way on the court a lot, and that would be Taylor Adams,” Johnston said. “She is an outside hitter, plays all the way around for us and brings a great deal of excellence in her play.
“We have Addie Walters, who is coming back for us and she's a setter, and she's been working really hard on her hands and is going to find her way on the floor as either a setter or a hitter, and just, she's really matured and is going to show great promise for us this season."
Johnston expects to benefit from a couple of new faces this year also.
"Somebody who transferred in last season, but was not eligible to play with us, so she had to play JV, is going to be Emma Kate Leach," Johnston said."We're expecting good things out of her out of the middle.”
Leach, in particular, is excited to get the chance to get on the floor and make an impact. She says she sees the work the team is putting in and is encouraged by the chemistry of the team heading into next week’s match.
“I really, I really love these girls, and they really, really get along well,” Leach said. "So I think [the chemistry] is really good.
Leach feels that the culture Johnston and the coaching staff have already created sets the girls up to succeed.
"I think it's kind of, like, as part of the culture, just players in the past have kind of set up that we're all going to get along on this team,” Leach said. “And we're all going to encourage and support each other and just continue to do that.”
Johnston is entering her fourth season at the program's helm. What she is most proud of is not her record and her success – although those things don’t hurt – it’s the realization that she can lead a group of girls to wins but also to adulthood.
“I learned that I'm primarily doing this because of the girls -- I want to see them win,” Johnston said. "But I also want to see them grow as athletes and see their character form and seeing the girls that I came [in] with as freshmen grow up the last four years and leave really great young women has been the most rewarding. As far as volleyball and athletics go, I've definitely learned just that you got to keep a mix between fun and competitive. The girls have got to remember why they're here in the first place.”
On Monday, the girls got the chance to have a crash course in their mission for the year.