Imagine your favorite sports team.
Now picture their veteran coach leaving and being replaced by a first-year coach with no prior experience outside of playing the sport. Now imagine a flurry of first-year starters and a rebuilt roster.
You’re probably not expecting a very successful year, are you?
Most people thought that of the Clarksville Northeast Eagles. Most people were wrong.
Under new coach Sam Loranty, the Eagles are 20-5 and 9-2 in District 13-AAA, which is loaded with powerhouses like Rossview and Clarksville.
Loranty, a 23-year old from New York where she played college volleyball, took the job with little knowledge of the program. She intended on serving as a volunteer assistant until the circumstances changed.
“It just kind of fell in my lap,” she said. “I was going to go no pay, no anything. Just be there and see if I like it and help the girls, then the previous coach just kind of up and left.
“Nobody else really had the skill or knowledge to really come in and help the team succeed. There’s so much talent and so much skill. I felt obligated. but at the same time, so scared.”
She knew there was talent on the team but was not familiar with many of the girls on a personal level. Instead of taking what was already there, she rebuilt the roster with her own vision, plucking girls from freshman, junior varsity and varsity to build the roster. This includes two captains – Tanesha Hicks and Mia Lawrence – as well as two co-captains: Kalli Egger and Olivia Miller.
Additionally, there are five first-year starters: Heather Williams, Natalie Figueroa, Deja Johnson, Tatiana Rugante and Richana Cokes.
“I kind of knew when I saw them that the rotation wasn’t the problem, it’s them connecting with each other,” Loranty said. “Usually these playing with each other on varsity have played with each other freshman, JV, varsity all the way up together. It’s getting those girls to connect with each other within a matter of weeks… get a groove going, get the trust that someone’s going to get the ball, someone’s going to be able to put the ball down.”
They had little time to get comfortable, as Loranty knew the girls for less than four months when she took over.
Of course, things have worked out well. Kiona Ray, Egger, Johnson, Lawrence and Cokes have each played all 66 of the team’s sets heading into the final week of the regular season. Williams has 127 kills in 313 attempts. Egger has 94 in just 219 attempts with only 25 errors, good for a .315 hit percentage.
Four different girls have at least 25 aces, led by Egger (65) and Lawrence (59). Rugante and Cokes have been the secretaries of defense, leading with 56 and 40 blocks, respectively. Lawrence (312) and Ray (165) cover their backs with digs.
So how did Loranty so quickly build a dominant team that is now a contender for first place?
“We’re still in that process,” she said. “Everyone gets set in their ways. The hardest thing is pushing discipline. If you have discipline, you’re going to have a good team. It’s things like showing up on time, staying after practice to work that extra swing or that extra pass that you have to get in, and it’s just the little things you have to touch, really.”
Even still, they are not without their obstacles. They face Rossview and Clarksville – the two other teams at the top of the region alongside the Eagles. Beyond that, Loranty’s youth can sometimes get in the way from external sources but among her players, too.
“They see me and they just don’t think I’m capable,” Loranty said. “So I’m not only trying to gain the girls’ trust, but (also the trust of) their parents, fans and the school. I’ve got the spotlight and it’s hard, but the girls make it easier.”
The players are bought in. Due to their coach’s genuine care for them on and off the floor, knowledge of the game and college experience, they know that Loranty is capable of leading them through high school and beyond.
“They sometimes think I’m their friend and not their coach,” Loranty said. “ I have to set that boundary and let them know I’m not your friend. I’m here to help get you disciplined so you can go play in college, get good grades because you are a student athlete, and make sure you’re on the right path to succeed in life.”