The quest for a three-peat state volleyball championship is underway in Portland, Tennessee as the Lady Panthers look to become the first school since Page High School to win three straight Class AA state championships (2000, 2001, 2002).
“That is always the goal,” head coach Rob Lesemann said of the upcoming season. “We want to compete for the state championship but first we need to win our district. It would be great to get to state and once you are there you just never know what will happen.”
The Lady Panthers took down Knoxville Catholic in both 2017 and 2018 for their first and second state volleyball championships in school history.
“Both are very special in their own way,” Lesemann said. “The first one was a sense of relief that we finally did it and the second one I was just so happy for our girls because I felt like the were good enough to win it and they earned it. I wanted our seniors to go out that way. Both of them have really good, but different memories.”
This year may be a tougher road for Portland.
Losing a quality player in Marlayna Bullington is a hard replacement, and I’m not sure anyone player can replace her 809 kills from last season. For Lesemann, he says he isn’t counting on just one player to replace the former Sumner County Player of the Year’s productivity.
“There is no doubt that is a big spot for us to fill, but I don’t expect any one girl to do it,” he said. “We have three really good seniors that we will count on this year in Katie Crutchfield, Josie Runyon and Emily Rogers. They have all been really good players for us in the past so we expect a lot from them.”
Crutchfield will play on the outside and likely get the bulk of opportunities but Josie Runyon, the team’s setter, is experienced enough and has high enough IQ to evenly distribute the wealth amongst her teammates.
Rogers will continue her duties as the team’s libero.
Savannah Pippen will join Crutchfield on the outside. A two-year valuable player, she has the ability to take the load off of Crutchfield and produce offense for the Lady Panthers.
“She does a really good job for us,” Lesemann said. “She is a fighter, jumps well and hits the ball really well. She has a good top spin jump serve and we will look to her to play all the way around for us. She will be a big help to our offense this year; we are excited about her play.”
The middle is still undetermined for Lesemann, but adds that Rayleigh Hester, Hannah McGithian and Sydney Lawless are expected to contribute in 2019.
Freshman Emma High will be counted on to play the outside opposite of Crutchfield and despite her inexperience, Lesemann believes she will come along nicely as the season progresses.
“She is a little inexperienced but our older girls have done a really good job of working with her,” he said. “She has the ability to hit the ball hard, and given time she will work out to be a good hitter for us.”
Other girls competing for playing time this year will be Ashtyn Hoffman and Qierra Gregory.
“I’ve got something every coach wants and that is quality competition,” Lesemann said. “That makes for great practices and competitive practices which benefit your team.”
Rob Lesemann deserves immense amount of credit for back-to-back state titles, but even he will tell you that this wouldn’t be possible without the support and dedication of those around him.
“There is no real secret to the amount of success we have enjoyed; we just work hard,” he said. “We have a really good feeder program where they play in the third grade and Cassidy Gregory at the middle school does a great job. If you listen to her coach it is the exact same lingo as me, and when you have the same stuff taught over and over it is really going to be beneficial. We just work hard and the girls accept the challenge. They don’t want to be the team not to win. It puts pressure on them but the great thing is they like that.
“When Ginger [Lesemann] was head coach she was known for defense and it was something they took pride in. We might not be the biggest team but we keep balls off the floor and as long as you do that you have a chance.”
Lesemann, his staff, and his players expect excellence in 2019. Whether that means the season ends with a third straight gold plaque or not, Lesemann knows that if he can just get ever ounce of potential out of his team then this year will be a success.
“I believe every coach has a really good idea of what the team is capable of if they do their best,” he said. “There have been seasons the team got beat in the region and we thought we got the most out of them, and there have been teams  that played their best volleyball game of the season in the last match of the season and came home with a state championship. I feel like if we can get the most out of them, wherever that takes us, I will be satisfied with it. That was the most satisfying thing about last year; we played our very best match when everyone was watching. Everyone in Portland saw how good that team could be.”
Team 31 will play their first home game of the season August 20 against South Warren (KY) at 6:30 p.m.