28TH CHOO CHOO CLASSIC
Friday's pool play
4--Ooltewah vs. Grace Academy, Walker Valley vs. East Hamilton, Central vs. Cleveland, Soddy-Daisy vs. Bradley Central; 5--Livingston Academy vs. Hardin Valley, Science Hill vs. Farragut, Elizabethton vs. Cleveland, Sullivan East vs. Knoxville Grace Christian; 6--Central vs. Tennessee High, Soddy-Daisy vs. Sullivan East, Ooltewah vs. Hardin Valley, Farragut vs. East Hamilton; 7--Central vs. Elizabethton, Bradley Central vs. Knoxville Grace Christian, Livingston Academy vs. Grace Academy, Science Hill vs. Walker Valley; 8--Ooltewah vs. Livingston Academy, Farragut vs. Walker Valley, Tennessee High vs. Cleveland, Soddy-Daisy vs. Knoxville Grace Christian; 9--Hardin Valley vs. Grace Academy, Science Hill vs. East Hamilton, Tennessee High vs. Elizabethton, Bradley Central vs. Sullivan East.
At Red Bank
4--Red Bank vs. Chattanooga Christian, Hixson vs. Arts & Sciences, East Ridge vs. Boyd-Buchanan, Signal Mountain vs. GPS; 5--Father Ryan vs. Coffee County, Blessed Trinity vs. Sullivan South, Sale Creek vs. Boyd-Buchanan, Warren County vs. Notre Dame; 6--East Ridge vs. Goodpasture, Signal Mountain vs. Warren County, Red Bank vs. Coffee County, Sullivan South vs. Arts & Sciences; 7--East Ridge vs. Sale Creek, GPS vs. Notre Dame, Father Ryan vs. Chattanooga Christian, Blessed Trinity vs. Hixson; 8--Red Bank vs. Father Ryan, Sullivan South vs. Hixson, Goodpasture vs. Boyd-Buchanan, Signal Mountain vs. Notre Dame; 9--Coffee County vs. Chattanooga Christian, Blessed Trinity vs. Arts & Sciences, Goodpasture vs. Sale Creek, GPS vs. Warren County.
The libero position was incorporated into competition volleyball in 1999, the TSSAA adopting it a few years later, in an effort to improve defensive play on the back row. Soddy-Daisy and Boyd-Buchanan, two of the 32 high school teams competing in this weekend's 28th Choo Choo Classic at Ooltewah and Red Bank, can attest that it has.
At the end of each volleyball season the Times Free Press chooses three Best of Preps teams, honoring those who had the best years on the court that particular season. Soddy-Daisy's Hannah Robertson was the 2013 first-team selection at libero, and Boyd-Buchanan's Katie DeLay was chosen second team.
Both are seniors this season and will be among the players to watch this weekend. Soddy-Daisy opens pool play Friday afternoon at 4 against Bradley Central at Ooltewah. Boyd-Buchanan's first match is at 4 at Red Bank against East Ridge.
Seeded pool play is set to begin Saturday at 9 a.m., with the last of those matches scheduled to start at 2 p.m. Single-elimination is scheduled to start at 4 in the afternoon with Gold-bracket play at Ooltewah and Silver-bracket play at Red Bank. Both finals are set for 8.
Robertson and DeLay were middle school teammates at Boyd-Buchanan, but that team didn't use a libero. Both played through the rotation back then.
DeLay was promoted to high school varsity as an eighth-grader. Robertson transferred and began playing some at right-side back row at Soddy-Daisy as a freshman.
This marks the third season at libero for the 5-foot-3 Robertson, whose cousin, Sarah Davis, was the libero when she first arrived. Davis is a former Best of Preps selection who is now a junior on Lee University's team.
"She taught me everything about the position," Robertson said. "She basically mentored me in every aspect of the game. I can go watch her and still learn from her."
Robertson currently leads the Chattanooga area in digs with 164. Soddy-Daisy coach Lorri Johnson said Robertson always plays with heart and has developed into a leader.
"When she came in as a freshman, you could obviously see the potential was there," Johnson said. "Even that year we had several seniors and everybody liked her because she's got a winning personality.
"She's a stalker, which is what you want back there. The libero has to be the leader of your defense, and a verbal leader."
Class A Boyd-Buchanan has a first-year coach in Alfie Dodd, who said he had known of DeLay for about three years before he accepted the job. He said trying to teach her something to help add to her game has been difficult, simply because she already has so many tools.
"She's very coachable," Dodd said, "and still, she's humble, even though she's as good as she is.
"The back line is hers. That's what a libero has to cover, and she does it as well as any high school or even college player I've seen."
The 5-7 DeLay has 142 digs so far this season and already owns the TSSAA record for digs in a career (3,752) with the bulk of this season remaining. She set two other state records last year -- most digs in a season with 1,383 and most aces in a match with 32 -- and her 69 digs in one match are the second-most in state history. She's eighth on the career aces list.
"That's not the reason I play," DeLay said of the records. "Personal awards that come are secondary. It matters a lot more to me how we do as a team.
"My goal is to hopefully know what it feels like to put a state-championship ring around my finger. I've gone to two state finals. I want to know what it's like to win it this time."
Robertson has her sights set on a return trip to the Class AAA state tournament after Soddy-Daisy came up one match short last season.
Both Robertson and DeLay said they don't mind that hitters and setters get much of the attention in volleyball. They like the challenge of taking on those good hitters, and there will be plenty in this weekend's tournament.
And with Robertson and DeLay on different teams, there should be plenty of digs for the two to rack up.
"We still talk about it," Robertson said of what could've been had she stayed at Boyd-Buchanan, "but I think it's a blessing I came to Soddy-Daisy. Katie and I have such a good friendship. I don't know if us playing together would've worked."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. 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.