COVINGTON, Ga. — It’s been a little while since the Newton Lady Rams have had a state tournament qualifying volleyball team — 2013 to be exact.
So after a 3-14 campaign last season led by coach Lavon White, who admitted he was just a “placeholder” to get the program over the hump of not having a coach, the Rams went back to that 2013 squad to find a coach in a former player from that state tourney team.
Tiandria Cotton, a 2014 graduate of Newton High and a recent graduate of Spellman College, was a setter on that 2013 team, and played all four years at Newton on the Lady Rams’ varsity squad, earning The Covington News athlete of the week honors several times.
And Cotton says she’s primed and ready to deliver to Newton the same kind of winning mentality she says her and her high school teammates enjoyed during her playing days.
“Last year, during my last year of college, I Was here to help out (coach White) almost every day when I could be,” Cotton said. “But this year when I graduated and became a teacher, I felt like becoming the head coach was just natural, you know? I’d been here, and coach White, when he knew I was coming, he told me, ‘Yeah, you need to take on this job.’”
Cotton is back at Newton now, not only as head volleyball coach, but also as a ninth grade biology teacher. Though not an official stat, she could be one of the youngest head volleyball coaches in the state. But Cotton says her energy and expertise of the game can help carry the program to success that belies her age.
“I’m excited to be here, because this is such a good group of girls,” Cotton said. “I think for them it’s all about motivation. Self motivation and the ability to be a family. Last year we all had great skill individually, but when it came time to be a family and a team, they didn’t know how to mesh.”
Cotton gleefully recalls the times when her Newton volleyball team was able to mesh together well enough to find its way to a berth in the Class AAAAAA state tournament. Since then, the program’s fallen on some hard times, even while other sports like basketball and football have flourished. But Cotton says she’s here to see to it that some of that success from other sports trickles down to hers.
“We want this to be a volleyball school,” Cotton said. “We’re known for the other sports, but it’s time for volleyball to be known here as well. And yes, I do see the motivation and the determination here to win so badly, just like it was when I was here. So I know we’re going to put up a banner in here. We’re ready.”
When talking about the foundation to program success, Cotton points to a trio of players she believes have what it takes to help put Newton back on a winning trajectory once again.
Seniors Justice Walker and Tyena Munez, along with sophomore Nyla Wooden are athletes Cotton says proved last season, even in the midst of a down year, that they’ve got the potential to be winners.
“Justice is our captain,” Cotton said. “She’s so determined, so passionate about volleyball, and sometimes it can come off to some of the other girls as if she’s mean. But she’s like me in that she’s always thinking, ‘We’re not losing.’”
Cotton says Munez is the kind of player and personality who “can pick up anybody,” and she says Wooden, a member of last year’s varsity squad as a freshman, has next-level potential.
“Nyla’s one of our youngest, but she’s so fast and she moves so gracefully,” Cotton said. “I definitely believe she’ll be playing in college. She’s got that kind of ability.”
She also mentioned Jordan Bynom as one who can become a quiet leader for the team. And while she and some of her players have been making the rounds at Newton trying to persuade others to become a part of the program, Cotton knows that nothing beats good, old fashioned success as a drawing card.
“Some of the girls are pretty popular, and they’re telling their friends, ‘You’ve gotta come out. You’ve gotta come out,’” she said. “But we’ve been going more with the approach that when we start winning games we’ll get our names out there. When people start seeing improvements from last year, it will help.”
Cotton said she’d like to see the impact of her program stretch back toward middle school ranks. She envisions bringing camps and clinics to come to Newton to teach eighth graders and middle schoolers the fundamentals of the game.
“That way, when the girls get here from middle school, they’ll already be ready to start pursuing state tournaments and all that,” she said.