Oak Mountain excited for another run with veteran core and positive culture

Published 12:39 pm Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

NORTH SHELBY – Oak Mountain volleyball has been building up for this moment.

Head coach Grace Burgess’ side reached the Super Regionals in 2022 after finishing just 11-18 in the regular season, and after coming within a win of reaching the Elite Eight, the Eagles want to finish the job this year.

Combine that with a strong veteran roster led by a motivated group of seniors, and Burgess believes that this could be the recipe for a special season.

“I’m really excited about this group,” Burgess said. “They have been ready for this moment for a very long time. This was my first group of freshmen when I took over at Oak Mountain, so they have had my coaching for three years and they’re ready to show it.”

Burgess has seen the senior class grow closer and learn within her culture, and she’s proud of all that they have done.

“They are kids that truly understand what this program is about,” Burgess said. “They’ve heard me now for three and a half years, and they’ve bought in and they represent what our program means in such a wonderful way.”

In Burgess’ three seasons as the Eagles coach, Oak Mountain has become a team that plays fast and works hard, and those two traits have allowed them to compete with the strongest teams in the state.

Because of that, not much will change from last year’s style of play on the court, but Burgess and the Eagles are always eager to find areas to improve.

“I really stick to what I feel works at our level,” Burgess said. “We’re going to be really hard workers. We’re going to pass the ball really well and we’re going to serve hard, and then our offensive shots are what keep us in matches. Hopefully we can tweak a few things and become more disciplined in some things than last year, but the style of play isn’t much different from last year.”

Those improvements will be needed as Oak Mountain faces some of the toughest teams from around the state in 2023. They also prepared for those teams by squaring off against them in summer games.

Like many teams from around the area, they tested themselves over the offseason at the Power League and play dates around the state, including at McGill-Toolen against top teams from around the southeast.

In the process, the Eagles learned a lot about themselves and grew into a stronger team.

“This summer, we had some ups and downs and we learned a lot about ourselves,” Burgess said. “We learned that nothing was going to be given to us because of our experience and that we still had to work hard every single day.”

They also learned that their schedule will once again be full of tough matchups, especially in their area with Chelsea, Hewitt-Trussville and Spain Park all shaping up to be strong sides.

Outside of the area, Oak Mountain will have Thompson back on their schedule after a couple of years away from their area and following a great battle between the Eagles and Warriors over the summer.

The Eagles will also have one of their toughest tests out of the gate when Bayside visits Birmingham to continue the two teams’ annual series in honor of breast cancer patients and survivors. It’s a matchup that everyone at both schools circles on their calendar, and it will come as their season opener on Thursday, Aug. 24.

Oak Mountain will have a great team ready to take on those challenges. The Eagles’ seven seniors are highlighted by outside hitter Mabrey Whitehead, who is newly committed to a D-I program in North Alabama, as well as Lauren Schuessler, who Burgess said has grown into a great athlete since beginning on varsity as a sophomore.

“She knows how to play in pressure situations, and she’s just so competitive and finds a way to score points for us,” Burgess said of Schuessler.

Further down the roster, Oak Mountain has a lot of height in its junior class, which Burgess is excited to utilize since she has not had that luxury in years past. One of those players is Aubrie Lay, who Burgess believes will be a breakout player this season at middle hitter now that she is used to the speed of varsity and knows how to play at the varsity level.

In addition to Lay, the Eagles will have multiple players in new positions to take better advantage of their skillsets, most notably Ava Heath, who moved to libero from outside hitter and is expected to have a standout season.

Burgess has also seen improvements from Ella Pierce since switching from the left side to the right side, and Burgess thinks Pierce will make a big impact once she gets more comfortable in that position since it lets her athleticism shine better.

Throughout the roster and even with all of the moving pieces, Burgess is confident that she has the right pieces in the right places, and that together, they make a great unit.

“I think that they all really understand what their role is and they all play that role really well, which is huge,” Burgess said. “Some teams can’t say that about however many people you have on the team. They love each other and they play so hard for each other, and I think that that’s awesome.”

Burgess emphasized her team’s character even further and combined with their work ethic, it could be just the recipe that Oak Mountain needs for a special season.

“They’re kind kids, but not when they play,” Burgess said. “When you can get really good people in a really competitive mindset, I think that that’s pretty dangerous.”