KINGSPORT — The first part of the new century brought about changes not only for the Sullivan South volleyball program but for the sport in the state as a whole.
Legendary Lady Rebels coach Sherry Hooks called it a career after the 2000 season and Tamara Yelton took over the program for one season.
The Wendy Ratliff era began in Colonial Heights in 2002, and she’s been there ever since.
“I was already in the building and started coaching in either 1999 or 2000,” she said. “I was from Southwest Virginia, went to John Battle and was playing with some girls at King that went to South. They always talked about (Hooks) and all the great things that she had done.
“Sherry when she retired from coaching was one of our assistant principals and she is one of the most supportive and loving people out there. She’s the best and was really a mother-like figure to me those first few years.”
BACK TO THE ’BORO
The Lady Rebels missed the state tournament in 2000 — for the first time since 1987 — but returned in 2001.
Yelton’s squad did not fare well, losing all four games without winning a set. The coach resigned at the end of the season after her husband was transferred in his job.
Ratliff took over the following season, but the team missed the big dance in Murfreesboro.
That didn’t happen again for a while.
TASTE OF SUCCESS
The Lady Rebels made the Class AAA tournament each year from 2003-06 and finished as state runner-up in 2005 — falling to Germantown 3-1 and finishing 49-11 — and 2006 — losing to Brentwood 3-0 to close the year 54-7.
“It was honestly really scary those first few years and it was hard to try to follow Sherry,” said Ratliff, who had an 8-10 record over her first four trips to state. “I didn’t want to let the tradition down.”
From 2007-10, South did not make the state tournament — its longest absence from the event in program history.
“We were really starting to doubt ourselves a lot during that time,” Ratliff said.
Dobyns-Bennett won both the district and regional tournaments in 2007 and 2008.
“Those games with D-B are always intense, but when Kathy Shafer was there, it was even more so,” Ratliff said. “It’s always a dogfight no matter what point in the season it is.”
COMING TO FRUITION
But in 2011, the team made the long-awaited trip back down I-40 to the Murphy Center and opened by winning its first match against Houston, 3-1.
South went on to take eventual state champion Ravenwood to four sets before falling, and Soddy-Daisy eliminated the Lady Rebels in losers’ bracket play. South finished that season 48-9.
The 2012 Lady Rebels battled all the way back to the losers’ bracket final against Brentwood before falling in straight sets and closing the year 49-8.
“It was a huge relief to finally get back to state and I felt like we were honoring that tradition,” Ratliff said.
It wasn’t long before South returned to glory in a new classification and conference.
NEW CONFERENCE? NO PROBLEM
Starting with the 2013 season, South reclassified to Class AA and began its domination of the Three Rivers Conference.
The Lady Rebels didn’t lose a Three Rivers match until last season when Sullivan Central snapped South’s 65-match winning streak by taking a five-set thriller on Aug. 20.
South’s first year in Class AA yielded a state championship, a four-set win over Hume-Fogg that capped a 47-8 year.
“We dropped down at the right time and I was like seven months pregnant at the time of the tournament,” Ratliff noted.
Despite having most of its key players back, the 2014 squad missed the state tournament after dropping a five-set sectional match at home to Knox Catholic.
The subsequent season saw South get its revenge. Despite being swept by Catholic early in the state tournament, the Lady Rebels capped a 44-14 season by sweeping the Lady Irish in the state final.
“There was so much going on in that tournament,” Ratliff said. “We had forgotten our balls before the first game. One girl’s blood sugar was super high. I do remember that all of the girls were sitting together in a circle in one of those smaller gyms in the Murphy Center and just started crying.
“I joined in and we had one big crying session before the game against Catholic in the finals. That group really loved each other and that’s really what it’s all about.”
STABILITY BREEDS SUCCESS
In its 40-year history, South volleyball has had three coaches and amassed over 1,600 victories.
The 2020 season will mark Ratliff’s 19th year at the helm. She has guided the Lady Rebels to 12 state tournament appearances during which they’ve gone 25-22 and made five straight trips.
Her overall record at South is 760-196. Her team has won every district and region tournament dating to 2011, including the final two years it was in Class AAA, giving her 12 championships in each.
“There’s so much tradition at South and I’ve had so many amazing players,” Ratliff said. “We’re going to be really young this year with only one senior, but this is a group that really loves each other and that’s something that I look for and is a good indicator of a close team.”
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