Sale Creek entered this high school volleyball season having advanced to a Class A state sectional in 2012, which came after a school-best third-place finish in the state tournament the year before.
But the program graduated some talented players. Among them are all-state honorees Erin Hill, now playing at Lee University, and Chelsi Roark, playing at Bryan College.
Yet based on what the 2013 Lady Panthers had done heading into this weekend's Tennessee Tandem tournament at GPS, Ooltewah and Baylor, it's hard to tell anything has changed.
Sale Creek entered the Tandem fresh off a 3-0 victory Thursday over Central, which began the season with some lofty aspirations in Class AA. The win made the Lady Panthers 18-6, and they also lead their district at 5-0.
"I had high expectations this year," Sale Creek senior hitter Megan Storey said. "We did lose some really good leaders, but a few new players and other people have stepped up. This year we really have a lot of heart, and we're more evenly balanced."
Several now are sharing in the production. Hill, the daughter of Sale Creek coach Debbie Hill, particularly filled up the stat sheet in several categories when she played for the Lady Panthers.
"We're having to play a little bit different game than we did the last couple of years," Coach Hill said. "Our defense has really picked it up a lot."
That defense is led by senior libero Brooke Welch, but she's willing to share the credit.
"We have some girls that can cover," Welch said.
Among them is sophomore Taylor Day, who played libero at Chattanooga Christian last year. And Jordan Duncan is a Soddy-Daisy transfer who shares duties at middle blocker with senior Mikayla Crowder.
The team's other senior is Regan Garrett, who's an outside hitter along with junior Miranda Barnette. Diminutive sophomore Bailey Pugh is the setter.
The last handful of years the Lady Panthers have routinely competed in the Tandem, which always includes several Class AAA teams and a few from Divison II-AA. Sale Creek's goal is to try to qualify for the Gold bracket.
Coach Hill believes facing "bigger and better teams" will help prepare her players for the tough competition they'll see in postseason. She said she's seen how hard they've worked.
"They've got it in their minds they want to get back to the state," she said. "After getting a taste and feeling that pain of falling short just a little, it's stuck with them."
And although the Lady Panthers fell one match short of the state tournament last year, it was eventual state champion Friendship Christian that ended their season.
"It's our last shot," Storey said. "We've just got to give it all we've got."
Said Welch: "I really feel like this year is our shot."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.