By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
Our region has always been a hotbed for high school girls’ volleyball, and nobody exemplifies that any better than Science Hill coach Laura Cook.
As a player at Sullivan South, Cook was named to the all-state team three times and led Sullivan South to a pair of state titles before playing collegiately at Furman. As a coach, Cook took over the girls’ program at Science Hill in 2017.
The girls Cook coaches at Science Hill typically arrive with years of experience in youth leagues and on club teams. They arrive on the first day knowing the terminology and basic strategy of the game.
“They start really young,” Cook said. “They just started a girls’ league in Johnson City for 8- to 12-year-olds.”
In 2019, however, Cook took on a new assignment when the Big 7 Conference athletic directors voted to add boys’ volleyball to the mix as a spring sport. All of a sudden, Cook found herself coaching players with no background in the sport, but she has enjoyed the challenge.
“You’ve got to really start with the basics and really start with learning the whole game and putting it all together,” Cook said. “You see a lot of growth from start to finish. It’s really cool to see.”
Science Hill’s first team was put together through a recruiting effort spearheaded by a member of the boys’ basketball team who wanted to play and some of the girls who played on Cook’s Science Hill team. They spread the word in the hallways of Science Hill, and enough players turned up in the gym to start a team.
COVID scuttled the second year of competition, but the Hilltoppers have continued to grow their program through 2021 and 2022. Cook said her program now boasts 18 players, and their enthusiasm for volleyball is palpable.
“They seem to really enjoy the game,” she said.
Senior Jack Fuller is one of the young men who decided to give volleyball a shot. Fuller started playing his junior year because he had friends on the team, and it didn’t take him long to get up to speed.
“It was a little hard at first, but my sister played volleyball, so I kind of knew what was happening a little bit,” Fuller said, adding that his sister gave him a hard time as he was learning the ropes.
Science Hill’s Landon Willis also started as a junior. The former basketball player found that his 6-foot-8 frame was also an asset on the volleyball court, especially near the net where the footwork that made him a good forward also makes him a dominant middle blocker.
“I got burned out with basketball, so decided to try volleyball,” he said. “I picked up on in really fast, but I’m still working on it.”
Cook said that while boys volleyball is not yet a sanctioned sport in Tennessee, she expects it will be very quickly. Either way, the opportunities beyond high school are already there as Tusculum, Lincoln Memorial and Milligan are among the schools already fielding teams and awarding scholarships.
The quick progression of the sport in our region can be seen in the level of competition, which is rising every year.
“This year I’ve noticed with all eight teams, everybody has turned out a lot stronger team,” Cook said. “Every night is a battle. Any team can win any night, and that’s the way you want it to be.”