Few sports programs are as synonymous with a school as volleyball is to Sullivan South.
Since the beginning of the program in 1980, the Lady Rebels have made a state-record 31 appearances at the tournament and have taken home the title five times (1984, 1995, 1996, 2013 and 2015). They were also runner-up in 1985, 1998, 2005 and 2006. South’s record at the tournament is 59-44 (through the 2019 season).
Led by legendary coach and TSSAA Sports Hall of Famer Sherry Hooks — who compiled well over 900 wins in her career — South became a state power. Her coaching career lasted from 1980 until 2001.
“Our teams were always fundamentally sound,” former player and now Sullivan East head coach Tracy Graybeal said. “Your best effort was demanded, and Coach Hooks was one of the first to develop a quick set out of the middle.”
THE FIRST TEAM
Hooks was instrumental in getting girls volleyball sanctioned as a TSSAA sport.
Rally scoring and side-out scoring had not come into effect yet. The match was a best-of-three in a race to 15 points for a set win instead of 25.
On the first squad were Jenny Pruett (Turner), Jill Lee, Shawn Gideon, Susan Parker, Romona Conkin (Strong), Tammy Horne (Gracia), Angie Duncan (Hyche), Jan Emerson (Williams), Kim Tunnell (Suitor), Kathy Lawhead, Sherry Bell, Patty Clark and Charsanna Harris.
“Coach Hooks knew what she was doing. She had played volleyball at Carson-Newman,” Graybeal said. “The game was so much different back then. It was not a popular sport and girls didn’t focus on volleyball. Coach Hooks was also the basketball coach, and she wanted everyone to play volleyball to better their agility.
“Back then, you had to have the ball to score, of course. You could actually block a serve, and there was no double-contact on the first serve. The officiating was also more strict than it is today. The game has evolved so much since that time.”
The Lady Rebels made the state tournament for the first time in the fall of 1981. South met Greenbrier in the opening round and defeated them in three sets (15-3, 11-15, 15-13).
South was the first team from Northeast Tennessee to win an opening-round match since Daniel Boone made it all the way to the finals in the inaugural tourney in 1976. Church Hill (1979) and Johnson County (1980) had also gone to the tournament but had been swept out.
The Lady Rebels bowed out in the semifinals to eventual champion Memphis Briarcrest in straight sets, 15-3, 15-8.
THE FIRST TITLE
After another semifinals appearance in 1982 and a first-round exit in 1983, the Lady Rebels were primed to make a deep run in 1984.
Chattanooga Kirkman had been the most dominant team in the first 10 years of the state tournament, winning six straight titles from 1976-81.
“Coach Hooks was probably one of the first coaches from this area to take us to weekend tournaments,” Graybeal said. “We went to places like Chattanooga because that’s where the powers were in the state at the time. That made us better for the area, and it gave us an opportunity to see our competition at state before we actually got there.”
Led by Julie Gilbert (Dietz) and all-state team members Sherri Davidson and Kendra Wilmoth (Harrold), the Lady Rebels rolled through Memphis Craigmont, Bradley Central and Memphis Prep on their way to the title.
According to Times News reporter Cindy Smith’s report, Gilbert put away the rallying and previously unbeaten Prep in the second game of the championship match with two devastating spikes.
However, even though Gilbert was South’s best player according to Hooks, she was not voted to the all-tournament team.
“I just can’t believe that Julie didn’t make all-state,” Hooks said in the post-game interview to Tennesseean sports reporter Cindy Smith. “She is our captain, our best and most experienced player. She was the definite plus in our game against Memphis Prep.”
In the finals, South had to rally in both games after seeing Prep come back from deficits of its own. Prep tied the first game at 11, but thanks to the great serving of Missy Luttrell (Ruffing), the rally was extinguished quickly.
In the second set, Prep went ahead 11-7, but South rallied to tie the game at 13 and 14 before Gilbert hammered down the final two points for the Lady Rebels.
“It was a one-day deal back then at MTSU,” Graybeal said. “I was a sophomore on the team and didn’t get much playing time. I really didn’t realize the magnitude of what we had done until we had gotten back really late and we had an escort by either the police or a fire truck back to the school.
“When I woke up the next morning and looked at the paper, we had made the headlines.”
CONTINUING THE RUN
South would make runs back to the finals in the following season but lost to Germantown in ’85 (15-13, 15-2).
In the first decade of existence, the Lady Rebels made the state tournament every year except 1980 and 1987.
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