Veteran Johnson County squad seeks for marked improvement

By Matt Hill

   MOUNTAIN CITY -- Johnson County Lady Longhorn volleyball head coach Michele Cooke is hoping that an experienced group of players will lead to a lot of wins in 2002.
   Johnson County has six seniors on its squad, and could definitely move out of the Watauga Conference basement and into the league's upper echelon.
   "We have a lot of seniors that have some experience behind them," Cooke said.
   One thing that doesn't excite Cooke is the fact the Lady Longhorns are small in stature.
   "But again we're small at most positions," Cooke said. "They'll have to be real tenacious, and have good first contact. We'll have to be aggressive on offense for us to be successful.
   "But when we get our act together and become a little more fluent, then will be OK.
   Ashlee Billings, Rebecca Boney, Heather Burgess, Nikki Davidson, Tamara Smith and Marlena Woods make up a senior class that Cooke is very high on.
   "I'm pretty fortunate that most of my seniors are good strong leaders right now," Cooke said. "We've yet to single out a captain. But again they all lean on each other. All in all my senior leadership is real good. They really encourage all the girls under them, and they help them out."
   Cooke is expecting a big year out of Davidson. She's an outside hitter that also starts on the Lady Longhorn basketball team.
   "Nikki Davidson is probably my strongest leader," Cooke said. "She works real hard. She's got a good work ethic all the way around. She's a good hitter."
   Boney and Burgess will be counted on for production from Johnson County's back row.
   "Rebecca Boney is a real good backcourt player," Cooke said. "Heather Burgess is real aggressive on the back row as well. I think she might be better on the back row than on the front."
   Billings will be the setter for the squad. Cooke says her teammates give her a workout,"
   "They run her to death," Cooke said. "She does everything she can to get there. She's improving more all the time. We're really depending on her."
   Cooke is also expecting big things from Smith and Woods.
   "Tamara is our backup setter," Cooke said. "She has a very strong serve, and that's probably what we will depend on her most for.
   "Marlena Woods has come a long ways from last year. She played JV last year, and she's moved up this year. She's probably one of our better passers, and she has a good jump serve that she's been working on."
   Another basketball player, junior Elena Owens, is expected to contribute as a middle hitter.
   "She's pretty good when she's got her head in it," Owens said. "She can do about anything. She's a pretty strong middle player. She can get up and block pretty well. We're expecting good things out of her."
   Junior Shannon Thomas and sophomore Laura Peters should also see action. Also on the varsity are freshmen Katie Nelson and Ryann Tillman.
   Cooke is hoping to move up in the Watauga Conference standings with her experienced team, but she doesn't want to put any pressure on these young ladies.
   "It's hard to say," Cooke said when asked if her team can move up in the league standings. "We do good things in spurts. If we can come together and have everybody there, then I think we can do well. But last year I think I jinxed us when I said we might do a little better than I thought. I thought I would jinx us in a good way this time. Hopefully, we'll move up. I haven't seen the other teams play, but I know they all have their strong programs. Hopefully in the next couple of years, we will develop a strong program as well."
   One problem for the Lady Longhorns this season will be finding a place to practice. With Johnson County's gym having a major facelift done to it, the Lady Longhorns will have to play their games at Roan Creek Elementary.
   Cooke said that has been tough.
   "The high school gym won't be available until October," Cooke said. We've been thrown around everywhere. We're allowed just one time spot at the elementary school Monday through Thursday. We get one practice a week. That makes it difficult as well."
   The Lady Longhorns open up Aug. 20 at Ashe County, N.C.