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Lady Eagles make big strides over summer

By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
A year ago the last thing W.S. Neal Lady Blue Eagles volleyball coach Kraig Rittenhouse had on his mind was developing a summer program.
"Once I became the coach, I spent last summer just trying to learn the rules of game and what I was supposed to do. The first volleyball game I ever went to was the first one I coached," Rittenhouse said.
After a year of on the job training, Rittenhouse now knows the importance of summer work in his sport.
"We're so much farther ahead now after our summer work this year there is no comparison as to where we were a year ago. A year ago the only work we had done by this time was the four days of practice we had put in," Rittenhouse said.
W.S. Neal limped across the finish line last season with a 3-19 record although that win total was two more than the one game it won in the program's initial campaign in 2002.
"I don't know how many games we'll win this this season, but I feel like we're a lot better prepared as a team and I'm a lot better prepared as a coach," Rittenhosue said.
Part of the summer schedule included participation in camps at the Brewton Area YMCA and at Jefferson Davis Community College.
"Some of our players had activity conflicts at the time of the YMCA Camp and we only had five girls attend that one. We had good participation at the JDCC Camp. We had around 18
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of our players in that one. The biggest thing I think our players got from those camps was fundamentals," Rittenhouse said. "I think it also helped the girls get words of instruction from somebody else besides me. As a coach, sometimes you can say the same things over and over to a player, but it won't sink in until he/she hears those same words from somebody else."
Weight room work was another big part of the Lady Blue Eagles summer work.
"We did a lot of work with the bench press, squats and some loose weights. Just about all our girls have gotten stronger although Jessica Jackson and Kristal Woodcock may have made as much progress as any of them. A lot of our players who are new to the team had never been on a weightlifting program until this summer and those players made significant progress," Rittenhouse said.
Running was another part of the summer program.
"We started with a lot of sprints and then added to it," Rittenhosue said.
As far as the game itself, perhaps the number one item W.S. Neal has worked on over the summer and in the early days of practice is serving.
"Serving just killed us last year. We probably lost four or five matches last season just with serving. Serving has always been a big part of the game, but it became even more important last year when the game went to a rally score format (where the opposing team receives a point after a missed serve)," Rittenhouse said. "Serving is always important, but it's especially important after a sideout, a timeout and when you're at set or match point. We've tried to develop pressure service situations in practice such as they have to get five consecutive serves in play or else they run."
W.S. Neal Midde School players participated in this year's summer program.
"We had eight incoming eighth graders finish the summer with us. We had never had players from the middle school work out with us before. Probably the biggest thing we tried to do with them was just expose them to the game and how it's played," Rittenhouse said. "I think it's important for the players at that level to get exposed to playing the game. That way they don't have to start from scratch when they get to high school. We've got a junior varsity schedule set up for those girls this season to help give them some playing experience."
While the focus is now on the upcoming season, Rittenhouse already has some plans for the next offseason.
"I think the next big step we need to do is to get the girls involved in some kind of club program. They've got a good one in Pensacola and we may try to get our players involved in that one," Rittenhouse said.
W.S. Neal is slated to start its 2004 season on August 31 with a 5 p.m. home match against Clarke County.