By Chris Goltermann
On first glance, James McCall’s arrival at The Heritage School might look like a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join em.”
But the veteran club-level and GISA head coach, whose Oak Mountain lineup last year was just a handful of touches away from Heritage suffering a second-straight heartbreaker in a return trip to the Class AAA finals, is the type who would have been gunning for a rematch with the Lady Hawks had the opportunity to come aboard the right school at the right time opened up in front of him.
“It was a hard decision for me to leave those kids. We were two points away from the state title,” McCall said. “I know they weren’t too happy about it. This job was just a good opportunity for me.”
He now looks to guide the Lady Hawks into Phase Two of a program less than a decade old that has managed to take off with three straight GISA Final Four appearances and back-to-back trips to the state championship match.
It took a comeback from an 0-2 deficit, however, to avoid another heartbreak against Oak Mountain, which was in search of its second state title in three years.
While McCall was forced to call plays from the bench due to a yellow card, Heritage finished strong after getting at least eight of its 15-points from a fifth-set tiebreaker from freshman outside hitter Genevieve Richards.
“They were a young group last year. They wouldn’t have beaten us without that freshman,” McCall said of a 16-25, 21-25, 25-19, 25-21, 15-13 marathon in last year’s final.
Richards also was named to the GISA All-State Team as a freshman along with outside hitter Cate Yancey, in what looks to be a 1-2 punch from both standouts at the position this fall.
Caceres is among six seniors along with starting libero Carissa Vazquez after both players were honored with All-Region selections in 2017.
Between Vazquez and Johnson, who has equally has earned high praise from McCall as a club-level player, defense should equally remain a strength with the Lady Hawks.
Fellow seniors Emily Cushing, Tricia Underwood, Frances Powell and Adria Pierce all played key roles on last year’s championship team.
Add the return of juniors Olivia Ayers and Peyton Knight with plenty of varsity experience at varsity hitter and it’s difficult to find a weakness in the lineup.
McCall has challenged to group, which also includes freshman Aaliyah Ferrell, to stay hungry.
“We need to continue to work hard and get better. We need to be hungry because we are the hunted now,” he said. “Our ball control will be really good. However, we need to limit our unforced hitting errors.”
A challenging schedule outside Region 1-AAA where the Lady Hawks and Oak Mountain are expected to be chasing each other for first, should help keep Heritage on its toes.
Despite losing Trinity Christian as a region rival, the Lady Lions remain on the schedule while adding East Coweta and McIntosh. Weekend trips to Pace Academy and a loaded field at the Rally High event held at the Lakeshore facility in Emerson should provide ample competition to prepare for the state playoffs.
“We’ve got a really tough schedule. We have McIntosh at home. I don’t know how I managed to pull that off. It’ll be fun,” McCall said. “A lot of these girls know each other from club.
A Heritage program that began under Mary Louise Hunt less than a decade ago with just a junior varsity squad has a chance to explode with McCall bringing in two key assistants that will help the growth of feeder programs.
On a recent morning, the gym was overflowing with athletes beyond the varsity.
“We probably have more girls doing this than any sport in the school,” McCall said.