Bulldogs ready for new district, new gym

Published 11:05 am Saturday, July 22, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Three years ago the Natchez High volleyball team members met in the high school gym to prepare for their inaugural season with professional player Keba Phipps teaching the team basics. 

On Thursday, Phipps returned, standing tall in the center of the gym watching Bulldog players pass the ball around with ease. 

The team is more comfortable with the ball and members have improved tremendously since the first season. And in two weeks, Natchez heads into its first season in district play. Mississippi High School Activities Association requires new teams to play the first two years as an independent and Natchez now plays in a district featuring Brookhaven, Florence, Provine and South Jones. 

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Natchez has its sights set on making the playoffs. Head Coach Jamal McCullen said his biggest concern is how the players grow over the season. Team growth is more important to him than wins or losses. 

“We have looked forward to getting to play in the district. We have eight girls who have been here since we started. Keba came back and helped fine tune us before the season,” McCullen said. “We had no skills the first time she came but now she can help us more. She is here to help us prepare and is guiding me. Keba is who I have leaned on and has been a great help to me. She always finds time for us.” 

Phipps is McCullen’s cousin and an Olympian. 

The season has several firsts for the Bulldogs. It will be their first year in the district, first year in a new high school and first year in a new gym. McCullen said the gym will have a built in ground system for the nets so no more portable nets. 

Junior Mariah Chatman said the new gym should be less of a pain to set up for volleyball games. McCullen said he was not sure when the gym would be ready but he is hopeful to play home games there this season. 

Chatman said she started playing because her friends tried out. She enjoyed volleyball and stuck with it hoping to see the program grow over time. Her outlook on the season is optimistic and confident. 

“Last year our JV won a majority of games and we think that won’t change this year as we all moved up to varsity,” Chatman said. “We have grown and have trust in the other people on the court. That is how you get better. You have to keep it simple, keep the energy going, have trust and chemistry. We have a team bond.”

Cylenthia Reed said she looks forward to playing some new teams Natchez had not played before. Brookhaven is an opponent Natchez knows pretty well. The Panthers reached the playoffs last season with a 5-13 record before losing to Vancleave in the first round. 

Brookhaven started a year ahead of Natchez so playoff hopes are not out of reach for Natchez. 

“We will have to adapt against those new teams. We have stayed on JV until this year so we kept the chemistry to work well together,” Reed said.

One improvement for the Bulldogs is the addition of a serving machine. McCullen said his Nu Xi Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity helped raise the money to get the serving machine. The chapter’s Basileus, president,  Torrey Grace stopped by practice Thursday to see the machine in action. 

“We won’t have to have everyone serving. We can all practice to get more reps in with the machine,” Reed said. “It is easier to have the machine send us balls and it saves us time.”

McCullen said he expects this season to lay a foundation for the girls coming behind them. He feels he has grown as a coach in the last three years in how he understands the game.

He said a great thing about coaching volleyball girls is the players are good in academics and are respectful. His varsity team has helped teach and coach the newcomers on the team. McCullen is working on building a program. 

“Hopefully we can make Natchez the place to be for volleyball,” McCullen said. “This group is coming together as a unit and wants volleyball to be special here. I’m excited about what we have and confident we will be competing.”