Panther eye 6A title

It was simply win No. 58 for the Pelham Panthers and the necessary step to return to the state’s Elite Eight Tournament at the Pelham Civic Complex Oct. 29-30.

Pelham advanced past the sub-state round Thursday with a win over Shades Valley, 25-10, 25-7, 25-13.

Now, seven teams have potential to stand in the way of the Panthers and a Class 6A volleyball program, but head coach Kim Kiel is only worried about one.

“I believe the only team in this state that can beat Pelham is Pelham, because we can be our own worst enemy,” Kiel said.

Last year’s trip to the state semifinals showed exactly what Kiel means, as the Panthers mentally fell apart against Huntsville to miss the championship match.

With all six starters returning from last year’s team, Pelham has been determined to win the state title since last November.

“The biggest difference is last year the kids wanted to believe they could win state. This year they know that they can,” skills coach Tien Le said.

Kiel and Le were also determined, so they set up the Panthers’ schedule with trips to some of the top tournaments in the Southeast.

“We wanted to play some tough teams leading to state, because we know state is going to be really tough,” Le said.

One of those tough challenges came Oct. 10-11 at the Tampa Bay Invitational, where the Panthers, ranked No. 38 in the nation, lost a five-game battle to No. 20 Timber Creek from Orlando, Fla.

“Even though we lost that, they got confidence from it knowing that they played at a high level,” Le said.

That confidence is only one element of the Panthers’ growth and maturity this year. Another was losing senior leader and middle hitter Whitney Hudson after a knee injury in the first week.

“When people think of Pelham they think of Whitney Hudson and Whitney Billings, but I think the other four, Jasmine (Clark), Tori (Welborn), Aly (Slaughter) and Lindsey (Young), have stepped it up tremendously,” Le said. “We don’t like any of our kids to get hurt, but the fact that she got hurt so early in the season has been a blessing because it forced the others to step it up.”

Hudson was able to return by week four but was forced into a libero role because of the tendenitis in her knee. The move pushed the others to become new leaders on the net, as Slaughter did Thursday with nine kills, while Young led with 24 assists, three kills and three aces.

After a lot of traveling this year, the Panthers are closing in on their goal, and they only have to travel down the hill to the Pelham Civic Complex.

“It’s very comforting to know that we can stay in our familiar territory, and having been here before with this team, they’ve seen what it is all about, and I think that will be a huge confidence boost when they step on the court this year,” Kiel said.

Pelham (58-4) will meet Daphne in the quarterfinal match Oct. 29 at 11 a.m. The winner will face either McGill-Toolen or Huntsville at 2 p.m. The championship will be played Thursday at 11 a.m.