Liberty County High School’s new volleyball coach, Lauren Hale, knows a thing or two about the court sport.
She played for Bishop Kenny High School while growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., then spent one year playing at West Georgia before finishing her volleyball career at the University of South Carolina-Aiken.
At USC-Aiken, she is fourth in program history in assists with 2,354. She earned the 2009 Peach Belt Conference All-Academic and All-Conference selection and was a two-time Peach Belt Conference Specialist of the Week.
Hale also was selected as her team’s MVP during her senior year and recently was named to USC-Aiken’s All-Decade Team when the university made its selections Aug. 29.
After Hale moved to Hinesville, she was an assistant coach for the volleyball squad at Armstrong Atlantic State University for one year. A phone call from Liberty County High School opened the door to teach social studies and take over as the Panthers’ new volleyball coach. Two years ago, the Lady Panthers were under the guidance of coach Jene Singleton. Last year, Singelton left the area, and Panthers tennis coach Sandra Eichholz stepped in to ensure the girls had a complete season.
Hale said she didn’t know what to expect at first.
“They didn’t have a coach all summer long, so they had not done any work at all during the summer and no work in the spring, either,” she said. “I knew I was coming into some raw talent, hopefully some talent, but definitely raw.”
Hale had 47 girls show up for tryouts and chose 18 players to form her varsity squad for the season. Looking to develop talent for years to come, the core of her team is made up of sophomores and freshmen. She has two seniors and four juniors.
“They all understand that we are trying to build a program,” she said. “For us to build, we really have to work on the fundamentals and go from there.”
Hale said they’ve had a rocky start to the season so far.
“I knew we weren’t going to be the best of the best in our region, but I really hoped that we could compete,” she said. “I told the girls to fight and outwork a team. You can win matches sometimes you are not supposed to win if you outwork a team, and we played Savannah High at Islands High School … and we beat them in three.
“I’ve never seen the girls fight so hard for a victory, and I was so proud of them. They showed me that they know how to fight and they really wanted that win.”
Hale said the team is strong on offense and setting knowledge, and they are working to improve defense and serving.
“But for me, the No. 1 goal was to start teaching them the correct way to play volleyball,” she added. “I told them from the get go, ‘We are going to get worse before we get better.’ I want them to buy into what I’m trying to teach them even though it’s very different from what they’ve had in the past.”
Luckily, Hale has senior multisport athlete Courtney Rhodes as the captain of the squad to help her guide the young team. In addition to volleyball, Rhodes has participated in basketball, track and weightlifting.
“Courtney Rhodes is definitely a phenomenal athlete,” Hales said. “She exerts great characteristics on and off the court. She does great in all of her classes. She exerts the leadership on the volleyball court that you need from any senior or any player, for that matter. She definitely shows the girls that athletics are important, but so are academics. She shows them what it is to fight and fight hard and to really commit to something.”
Hale said she is committed to making the Lady Panthers, and volleyball in general, a force to be reckoned with.
“I want to make volleyball something important in this town,” she said. “I want to hold clinics throughout the year, especially during spring and summer. My goal is to get southeast Georgia to the point where I know volleyball is in Florida. I want to bring that level of volleyball to us.”
The girls will host a match against Brunswick at 5 p.m. Thursday. They also will honor their seniors.