KOSSUTH – Kelley Hopper led Walnut to the top of the Class 2A mountain in 2020 and ever since then the Lady Wildcats have been hungry for more.
The goal of a title repeat was within reach as Walnut sat with a 21-6 record and a second-consecutive North final appearance last season. But standing in the way was eventual state champion Belmont, who swept the Lady Wildcats in their first season since dropping down from 3A.
It was a tough pill to swallow for a team with those kinds of expectations. And the last year’s loss to the Lady Cardinals hasn’t deterred Walnut’s hopes of reaching the pinnacle again despite losing four key seniors, and Belmont returning a talented, experienced roster.
“As a team, we’ve discussed it because we know what our end goal is,” said Hopper. “Sometimes we get wrapped up in we’re not meeting the expectation and that end goal. So we have decided to adopt the process philosophy. It’s a process. As long as we show up and work today, then we live to see tomorrow. … If we want to reach our goal, we just have to trust the process.”
The process began on Saturday for Walnut, where in three, two-set scrimmages held at Kossuth, the Lady Wildcats’ results were all over the place. In the first match, Tishomingo County rode outside hitter Reese Moore to a sweep (22-25, 24-26) of Walnut, who failed to present much of a challenge at the net for the junior.
Walnut went back to the drawing board before the second match against Amory, where they nearly blew a 6-point lead late in the first set, but held on for a 25-21 win. Down 20-16 in the second set, the Lady Wildcats displayed why they’re still title contenders as they pieced together a 9-0 run to end the match and complete the sweep.
Walnut split the sets in the final match against McNairy Central (TN) with the Lady Bobcats taking the first set 25-19 and the Lady Wildcats the second set, 26-24.
“We have a brand new crew and it looks like it,” said Hopper. “So we’re learning to play together and learning to trust our teammates, that they’ll do their jobs. I felt like as we played today, those little things did improve, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
If the Lady Wildcats hope to reach their potential, it starts with senior leadership from last year’s Division 2-2A MVP Madi Kate Vuncannon, setter Madison Weeks and Harley Garner.
“I’ve talked to them about them being seniors and this being their team, so they create what they create,” said Hopper. “… I think for the most part they’ve done a good job. They’re not perfect but they work super hard and never complain. Even at practice when I’m killing them, they are the first ones in line and the last ones to leave.”
Vuncannon and Weeks, in particular, have the most experience on the team, and were vital parts of the 2020 championship team. Hopper mentioned that at times she can tell the duo’s desire is to be right back where they once were, but that it’s often times a struggle for them to see the process unfold in front of them.
Walnut will have to break in freshmen Kaylee Estes and Henlee Sisco, both of which will see varsity action as the season goes on. Sophomores Addi Hicks, Dusty Tennison and Brailee Quinn are others being elevated from JV roles to varsity minutes.
Those underclassmen join juniors Jayla Meeks, Cadence Rolison, Neely Hodum and Marti Roberson to help form a deep roster with unique skills.
After competing in the Bulldog Bash in New Albany on Saturday, the Lady Wildcats will begin the regular season hosting Ripley on Aug. 9. Before that match takes place, Hopper is harping on two areas that need improvement – both revolving around consistency.
“We’ve got to get our passes more consistent and our attack has to be more consistent,” said Hopper. “I think it’s in there, I just think we need to find it more consistently. … Once we do those things, I think we’ll be OK.”