Rabun Gap’s volleyball team is currently 11-4 and ranked #5 in the NCISAA state rankings! There is more excitement and energy around what this team is doing than what we’ve seen in quite some time, so I sat down with Head Coach Zoe Kennedy, Assistant Coach Tyce Dagel, junior captain Taylor Nickerson, and sophomore libero Cassidy Klimasewski to get more insight into their season. We’ve seen some pretty fun and exciting volleyball in Andrew Ritchie Gymnasium this fall!
What’s the biggest shift you’ve seen this season compared to the past?
Both coaches and players were quick to answer this question, and it’s clear to see that there is a strong bond that ties this squad together. Nickerson said that the team chemistry is different and they feel more like a family who is “willing to transform their words into actions.” Klimasewski echoed that sentiment, adding that all the girls come to practice all wanting to improve their individual games for the betterment of the team Coach Kennedy says that the team's authenticity is what allows them to thrive. They sometimes giggle at what they all went through during their days as they warm ups and they take water breaks in funny accents. Coach Kenndy calls these moments “little pockets of joy,” and they are the things Coach Dagel says help build an environment where no one is afraid to fail. He says, “joy brings better energy than anger and anxiety do,” and that helps the team focus on its collective purpose and love.
This team is digging deep into the playbook this year, approaching volleyball with more complexity and poetry than they have ever been able to in their past. The strengths that resonate, though, aren’t offensive or defensive strategies or their ability to adapt to in-game situations. Instead, their strongest assets have more to do with how they care for one another and the heart and resiliency they play with to find success as a team. Coach Kennedy said her priority is not the game ahead, but it is instead the people she coaches. She pours herself into her players and they, in kind, pour into one another. In a recent practice, both the varsity and junior varsity teams were in a combined training session. Klimasewski and Nickerson were right at home in their element that day; cheering on the younger players, speaking positivity into the gym and creating their volleyball community. “We set the tone for how we want their program to be and how we want our program to be viewed,” said Nickerson.
This sense of community has been put to the test in game play this season, and the team has remained rooted and resolved in the foundation of “we over me.” In an early season tournament in Charlotte, the team went 0-2 on their first day of competition. Coach Dagel sees this as a turning point in the team’s first weekend of competition of the season. Leaders on the team spent that night and the next morning speaking truth and life into the team, urging and encouraging togetherness and grit. The Eagles won their first game of the second day of the tournament, defeating Charlotte Catholic two sets to one. Building on the momentum of that first weekend, Rabun Gap has gone on to win 11 of their last 12 matches. Recently in Asheville, the girls stood up to yet another strong test going down 13-3 to Asheville School in the first set. Sofia McNabb then went on to do something Coach Dagel called “unheard of in high school volleyball,” serving for 16 consecutive points! What kept her going in that service run was the energy the team was able to bring, Nickerson said. Klimasewski said that every time Asheville would rally during a point, the team would dig in harder just to keep McNabb on the service line. That was a gut check game, and the Eagles swept the Blues in straight sets after winning the first set 25-15 thanks to that improbable 22-2 run sparked by McNabb’s serve.
If you’ve been to a home match this year, I hope you’ve arrived early enough to witness the team invite their opposition to pray their team prayer with them before the first serve. I asked about this and was thoroughly impressed with what I learned. During pre-season camp, Bible Teacher and Assistant Chaplain Dr. Chelsea Williams joined the team in an exercise to craft that prayer. Klimasewski said the exercise and the prayer is so impactful because “prayer brings people together just like volleyball brings people together.” Their prayer asks that sportsmanship be on display during the game, that God keep the players safe and for extra guidance through the match so that they may perform their best for The Audience of One. It is noticeable that the volleyball team has internalized our athletics department's aim for the year of being passionate, humble, and disciplined. They are leading the way!
There is still a lot of volleyball left to play in the 2023 season. The Eagles travel to Asheville Christian on Tuesday, September 12, and to Franklin High School on Thursday, September 14 in what will prove to be hard-fought matches. Coach Kennedy is not interested in talking about rankings or streaks, because they are not her priority, and as the Eagles’ season enters into some defining moments, she wants her team to “believe in what we are doing and the bond we have built to help us navigate the challenging teams. Our focus is to leave the gym proud of what we've done, and proud of who we are, no matter what the final score is.”
The Eagles’ next home match is Tuesday, September 19 at 6:00 PM.