A trio of Bartow County volleyball teams competed in the first-ever Welcome to the Jungle tournament Saturday at Adairsville, and while none of the three advanced beyond the semifinals, each local coach saw signs that this season could be a step in the right direction for their respective program.
Woodland and Cass each advanced to the eight-team tourney's semifinals. Adairsville bowed out in the quarterfinal round that followed a round-robin, pool-play portion. Entering bracket play, the Wildcats were the No. 3 seed, the Colonels were seeded fifth and the Tigers were the eighth seed.
Woodland wound up 3-2 after posting a 2-1 pool-play record and reaching the semis. The Wildcats knocked off its county brethren but fell to the Longhorns in their pool. David Condon's team rallied past North Murray in the quarterfinals but couldn't quite match the feat in a semifinal loss to Fannin County.
Saturday's handful of games marked the beginning of Woodland's regular season. There were certainly some positives to take from the experience, along with several points of emphasis in hopes of improving.
Condon said inconsistency plagued his team throughout the day.
"I'm sure everybody experienced that," he said. "Hopefully, we'll iron some of those things out, working with a new rotation. We had spurts where we had really great effort and focus, and some where we didn't. We saw a lot of good things, so hopefully, we've got a lot of stuff to build on."
Meanwhile, Cass finished the day with a 2-3 record, defeating Adairsville in pool play and Sonoraville in the quarterfinals. The Colonels fell to Region 7-AAAAA rivals Woodland and Kell (twice).
Compared to Cass' setbacks Thursday night to Calhoun and Pepperell to start the year, Saturday's showing was a massive step forward.
"I think we did a lot better [Saturday]," Potter said. "We played well in the pool play. We played Kell twice and did much better the second time. They're an awesome team all the time. I was really proud of that."
For the tournament hosts, an 0-4 showing wasn't ideal, but considering the Tigers faced only Class 5A teams, including eventual champion Kell twice, it was somewhat to be expected.
"I think we did a lot of learning," Adairsville head coach Kailey Vaughn Martin said. "There were a lot of positive things. We definitely have a lot of stuff that we can work on. I'm proud of them.
"Compared to last year, it's tenfold better. That's all I can ask for — improvement, learning. That's what we do every day. We set some goals, we accomplish those goals, and now we go on and set some more goals."
Like with Woodland, Saturday also served as the season-opening set of matches for Adairsville, and the atmosphere seemed to get the better of the Tigers.
However, the tourney should serve as a teachable moment moving forward.
"I think we had a lot of nerves," Vaughn Martin said. "We have four seniors, and the rest are underclassmen. There's a lot of nerves, a lot of stuff we have to get used to. Seeing a varsity court for the first time is definitely a learning experience. I think they handled it the best they could for now."
During Saturday's matches, Vaughn Martin saw a couple of offensive bright spots in Kaydee Huskins and Autumn Henderson. But the Tigers' standout player was certainly libero Aaliyah Applin.
"She's unstoppable and a solid defensive player," Vaughn Martin said of the junior. "She's our captain. She keeps the team up. She's usually silent, but somehow she manages to keep everyone else as loud as possible and on their toes."
Potter praised the effort and leadership of his four seniors — Madison Philpott, Riley Nelson, Makina Gorham and Keegan Krause. He hopes their influence on the team helps bring the underclassmen along through the rest of the season.
There was already some of that on display Saturday, especially against a solid Sonoraville team.
"They're non-regional matches, and a lot of people say, 'Well, they don't really mean anything,'" Potter said of his team's early games. "As far as the standings go, I guess they really don't. But we haven't really been practicing all that long, so to show improvement over any short period of time is a good thing. I think we're on the road to being much better."
Woodland used a well-rounded arsenal to remain competitive in virtually every match, although the Wildcats were prone to slow starts. They overcame a 25-14 first-set defeat with wins of 25-17 and 15-11 to move past No. 6 seed North Murray. Woodland tried the same tactic against second-seeded Fannin County but suffered a 25-10, 25-22 loss.
"Both times, we came out flat, and that's always frustrating, especially when you're trying to coach that out of the girls," Condon said. "... They responded both times, so that was pleasing that they will respond. I've had teams before that haven't responded as well, so I was really pleased with that."
Sydney Molinaro finished the day with 20 kills and the same number of digs. The junior also added 43 assists, 10 aces and five blocks. Senior Caroline Gore paced the offense with 34 kills, while chipping in with 11 digs and seven aces.
Lauren Morris posted at least five assists in three different games, including 10 in the victory over the Mountaineers; Grace Webb had four kills apiece in each bracket-play game; and Emmalee Cigainero totaled six kills, five aces and nine digs in the wins over Adairsville and Cass.
Playing in a tournament on the first weekend of the regular season isn't something Condon normally likes to do. He saw this tourney as a chance he couldn't pass up this year — and probably won't in the future.
"We, honestly, do like to play [a tournament] a little bit later into August," Condon said. "It's closer to county and kind of leads into region [play]. It just worked out. We always want to play here, and when Adairsville contacted us and told us they were going to have it, we definitely wanted to take advantage of that. I think it's a great experience.
"Everything, for the most part, ran pretty close to being on time. One of the courts got a little behind, because it was going to three sets every single match. But mostly everything has been on time, which is good because we've been to some that run late, late, late. That's never good. If they have this again next year, we'll definitely look into attending."