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SEHS volleyball looks to take next step under Ellison
Heywood Ellison
South Effingham volleyball coach Heywood Ellison speaks to his team after a recent practice. Ellison inherits a squad that won 20 games last season and made the state tournament for the first time in three years. (Donald Heath/Special for the Effingham Herald.)

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

GUYTON – Heywood Ellison readily admits he's a basketball guy who developed a love for volleyball.

And he's ready to help South Effingham continue its progression toward the elite of Region 2-6A.

Ellison took over for Jenna Gerbasi, who released the head coaching reins after two seasons. The Mustangs won four games her first year, 20 games last season (20-18, 3-3 in region play) in one of the biggest turnarounds in the state.

South finished fourth in competitive Region 2 and advanced to State for the first time in three years.

Ellison coached the junior varsity, the pipeline of talent which can keep SEHS on an upward trajectory, he says.

"It was the second year of the system and Coach Gerbasi did a great job getting the girls to buy in," Ellison said. "We're headed in the right direction. I've worked with most of these girls. We'll have a young team, but they should be pretty good."

Ellison's youthful vibe meshes with a squad that has only two seniors and two juniors among the 30 players in the program. At times, he physically demonstrates some drills.

"A lot of the drills are the same in basketball," Ellison said. "You have to jump, you have to run, sit down (in stance), you have to move your feet (defensively)."

Ellison coached girls’ basketball and was an assistant with the boys team early in his coaching career at Memorial Day in Savannah. When the school started a volleyball program, he assisted Coach Katy Ballance before eventually getting the head coaching job for four years.

"I love volleyball. I never thought I'd be coaching it," Ellison said.

At South, he's been an assistant in multiple sports – boys’ basketball, track and volleyball. The 45-year-old's energy and enthusiasm are contagious. 

Voluntary volleyball practices in the summer drew 22 or more from the group of 30. And the Mustangs showed improvement, advancing to the championship game in their division at summer camp at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Versatile junior Riley Stringer is SEHS' key returning component. Ellison said Stringer will be the setter after leading the team with 268 assists last season, but piling up 116 kills and 199 digs proves she can be productive at all six positions.

Stringer will most likely target sets to sophomore middle blocker Clara Vorel, who is back after leading the team with 149 kills.

Another sophomore, Iris Manlove, returns at libero after leading the team with 267 digs.

Vocal team leader Brianna Coffee, a senior, can interchange as a defensive specialist or libero. Emma Pierson will also rotate in as a defensive specialist.

Outside hitter Paige Heverly, right side hitter Lexi Gibson and middles Anna Kate Taylor and Hayden Johanson will be offensive contributors. Johanson, a sophomore, played on the Mustangs' girls’ basketball team last season.

SEHS opens the season Aug. 15 against Region 1-7A champion Richmond Hill (36-4 a year ago and 21-win Statesboro.

Two days later, the Mustangs will meet St. Vincent's – a 25-win, Class 3A state quarterfinalist – in Savannah.

The tough test should be preparation for team goals – beating rival Effingham County (the defending region tournament champion), winning the regular-season region crown and then the tournament.

"Our schedule is front loaded with tough teams but I think it's only going to make us better at the end," Ellison said. "These girls are confident. The good thing is no one is talking about individual awards, it's about what the team needs to do."