A new coach has stepped on the volleyball court for the Butler Bulldogs in each of the previous four seasons. But when Heather Webb gathered her team for the first time this year, they got a sense she could be different from all the coaches that have come before her.
Butler has a rich tradition of athletics, with the Bulldogs winning state championships in football, girls basketball, girls track and softball, not to mention numerous conference and regional victories in a multitude of other sports.
But, maybe in part due to the revolving door of coaches, volleyball hasn’t enjoyed the same type of success. Webb took immediate notice.
“She walked in and right away she looked around and said, ‘I don’t see a volleyball banner hanging in this gym and we’re going to fix that,’” said junior middle back/opposite Rachel Johnson. “And you could tell she meant it.”
Webb played at South Carolina’s Newberry College after four all-conference seasons starring at Clinton (S.C.) High, where she later returned to coach with her mom, Jo.
The Bulldog players didn’t know what to make of her or her claims that this was going to be a much different season at first, Webb said, but after a while the new coach began to sense the players were starting to believe.
“The first thing I said was there aren’t any banners hanging for volleyball and that was going to change and change quickly,” she said. “They didn’t say anything, but with their actions they questioned me a lot at the beginning, but I feel like I calmed them down. I told them I was here to stay. I teach in CMS at an elementary school (Barringer Academic Center) but I told them I’m invested in this program and the school system and unless I’m told otherwise, I’m here to stay.”
That stability may be exactly what Butler needs.
The Bulldogs went 15-10 and 10-4 in the conference last season, making the jump to third-place behind eventual Class 4A state champion Ardrey Kell and perennial power Providence. Now, through conference realignment, Butler is the Southwestern 4A’s top team – a moniker these Bulldogs appear ready to defend.
“She pushes us a lot harder and she has bigger goals for us. I think she’s really focused on the big picture and getting us to all buy into it,” said senior captain and outside hitter Hannah Joyner. “Coach knows when to turn off the coach part and when to be more of a friend. I can talk to her about not even volleyball stuff and that’s how she is with everyone.
“I look forward to this season, because we have to prove why we ranked so high last year and just continue what we started.”
Webb can see the Bulldogs are equipped with the firepower to show they belong in the conference’s top spot, a perch they’ve never sat on before.
“I have high hopes for this season,” Webb said. “Honestly I don’t see a weakness on this team.”
Joyner is the Bulldogs top returning hitter and should see an increase in the 125 kills she posted last year while adding 67 aces and 55 blocks. Johnson contributed 112 kills and 31 blocks in her first season playing at Butler and senior setter Kimberly Mullican added 122 digs and 23 aces.
“I think we’ll definitely push harder this year since our conference got all switched around,” Mullican said. “Providence and AK aren’t in our conference (they moved to the South Meck 8), so it’s good for us. We have good middle hitters, we have good servers and I think we’re strong all around.”
Despite losing captain Amy Boston and outside hitter Madison Brown to graduation, junior Maxine Glenn (team-high 247 kills) to a shoulder injury and seniors Annaka Beatty (591 assists, 82 kills and 77 aces) and Emily Barksdale (249 digs) to club volleyball, the Bulldogs feel they have a shot to win their first-ever conference volleyball title.
“I readjusted some people,” Webb said. “I moved Amina (Jon-Ming) from a middle to an outside so she’s having to adjust but she’s done good. Hannah and (senior defensive specialist) Micah (Rogers) are our captains and they’re doing a phenomenal job making sure everyone is where we need to be.
“We’re all on the same page and we’re just cruising now.”
The Bulldogs kicked off the season against Ardrey Kell, a power that won their second Class 4A title last season, on Aug. 19. Butler lost 3-1, but showed promise, dropping games 25-19, 25-19 and 25-15.
“We played hard but we have some adjustments to make,” Webb said. “We’re making the adjustments and will get better as the season (goes) along. We did an excellent job serving and taking advantage when we had possession… We are going to make corrections to get better as a team.”
With an early-season test providing a glimpse of where the Bulldogs need to get to, Webb hopes the dividends will pay off down the road.
“We’re improving,” she said. “We’ve improved day by day ever since I got here and I think we’ll just continue to get better. We’re all on the same page and that can only help us going forward.”
As the Bulldogs look to the future, they say keeping common goals they share with their rookie coach will ultimately determine what this season will bring.
“I feel more comfortable this year,” Johnson said. “Last year was my first on the Butler volleyball team and so this year I’m more like ‘OK, I know what I’m doing.’”
With so many players gone – either through graduation, injury or club play – Mullican said this team is learning together, something that will only make them stronger as the season wears on.
“Last year it was mostly upperclassmen leading the way,” she said. “We had about half of us who play club and that experience helped us play better together.
“Now it’s our turn.”
With a talented roster, an eager coach and a conference without the teams that used to be penciled in the top two spots in the standings, this could be the season Butler gets its first volleyball banner to proudly display in its gym.
“I want to see how good that banner looks on the wall,” Joyner said.
To do so, Webb said her team needs to stay on the course they have already begun to travel down.
“We have to keep communicating and we’re on the same page, we’ll be fine,” Webb said. “Our abilities, our skills and our knowledge of the game will take us exactly where we need to go.”