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Wheeler Richardson knows all about the Mississippi High School Activities Association volleyball playoffs.
So nothing should come as a shock for the Starkville High junior setter as she experiences her third dose of postseason play when the Lady Yellowjackets battle DeSoto Central in Division III first-round action today in Southaven.
Richardson has just one problem. Her past teams have never survived to see round two.
"I think a lot of us that have been playing for a while are like, 'we can do this, we can get past the first round,'" said Richardson. "We've just got to get the momentum, get a big push and get past this first round. I know we can, but it's just a matter of us playing as a team, at our best, at the right time, all the time."
Playing high-quality volleyball is something the Lady Jackets (20-9, 2-2) have become accustomed to this season, particularly on their home floor. SHS won eight of its nine home games at the Beehive this year, the lone setback coming to fellow Division III, Region 2 rival and champion, Tupelo.
Unfortunately for Starkville, heading into the playoffs as the region's runner-up takes the Lady Jackets away from their home court, but head coach Lauren Love has faith her team can tackle the challenge.
"Fortunately, it's an afternoon game (1 p.m.) so we don't have to get up too early or make any huge adjustments," said Love. "Just things like being on the bus together, it definitely will carry over to the team aspect when we get on the court. But I'm really proud of the girls. They just have the mindset that wherever we go, whoever we play, just play hard and we can play with the best of them."
A big reason for Love's confidence is the play of Richardson. She leads the team in aces (115), points (270), and assists (318).
Richardson's 174 digs are second only to Elizabeth Scott's 273.
Yet Richardson is the first to point out that Starkville's current run of success is far more than a one-person show. Now in her fourth season, the junior is quick to shine light to the roster around her, indicating the bond they share might just be enough to overcome hurdles such as an opening-round road playoff game.
"This is as close as we've ever been as a team," said Richardson. "I think that is a really good sign and indication that we can overcome obstacles easier than we did in past years. If we get down, it's easy to pick each other right back up and start playing back to the best of our ability."
In hopes of smoothing over any potential bumps in the road, Love has been guiding the Lady Jackets through fundamental drills and game situations the last several days in preparation for today's unfamiliar opponent.
With weeks and weeks of training and preparation already under her team's belts however, SHS's second-year head coach says there's not a whole lot of new information that can be taught.
"We're just working on consistency," said Love. "That's what has helped us the most. We're working on a few little details, just working out the kinks and things. Basically, we're doing whatever we can just to take care of our side of the court."
Richardson hopes using her coach's fine-tuning tactics will finally help carry SHS further into the playoffs than she's ever been before.
"If we can take care of our side, the other side will take care of itself," said Richardson.