NORCROSS - It's become a common story in high school athletics.
A young athlete experiences a breakout season following an offseason of hard work, both physically and fundamentally, with his or her sport.
However, few high school volleyball players have blossomed the way Wesleyan's Anna Keappler has this season, and under the most urgent of circumstances.
Having lost one of the more dominating hitters in the program's storied history - 2008 Daily Post player of the year Anne Marie Armstrong - to graduation and with another potential go-to player - Super Six selection Haley Collins - saddled by injury for the second straight season, somebody had to step up and fill the void.
Keappler has done just that, and more, as she and the top-ranked Wolves (29-17) begin play in the Class AA/A state playoffs Saturday against Henry County at the Yancey Gymnasium.
It's certainly a dramatically different role than the one the 5-foot-11 senior has played in her previous seasons with the team.
"She's a totally
different player from last year," Wesleyan coach Ted Russell said. "I think it has a lot to do with playing club volleyball for the first time last summer. She's really developed her game to where she can hit the ball down the line with authority.
"In the semifinals (of the recent Gwinnett County Tournament) against Mill Creek, she had 13 kills and zero errors. In the finals against Norcross, she had 12 kills and no errors. She was definitely in a zone. There are very few (players) who can do it consistently. That makes her that much more valuable."
Indeed, Keappler has become a dangerous offensive weapon, leading the Wolves with 445 kills and a hitting percentage of .307.
But what has made her an even more valuable asset to the team has been her versatility.
Keappler has played as a hitter on both the left and right sides, middle blocker and has even seen some time at setter throughout the season.
And she's contributed at each spot on the floor, adding 288 digs, 45 service aces, 231/2 blocks and 36 assists on the season to go along with her offense - including eight double-doubles (kills and digs).
And once again, Russell points to her experience playing club ball with the A5 Volleyball Club of Atlanta as a catalyst to developing the variety in her game.
"That made a big difference for her," Russell said. "The other kids on her team were very strong, so she was having to fight for playing time. Because they had some injuries, she got do play a lot on the right side, in the middle, on the left side - a lot of different positions. That made her more versatile."
That versatility has also made her a prime recruiting target for several college programs, including Georgia State, Northern Michigan and Anderson (S.C.) University.
While Keappler agrees playing club volleyball helped her fundamentally, she believes it had just as strong an affect on her in less tangible ways.
Having given up playing with Wesleyan's basketball team to concentrate on volleyball, she says she not only paid greater attention to details in volleyball, but also learned a few things about herself.
"It was a little overwhelming at first because it was a new experience," Keappler said. "But (like at Wesleyan) I had some great girls on my team, so it was a really fun experience.
"I think I just got a lot more confident in my game and started to learn to hit to different spots. The confidence really helps."
That confidence has really come in handy for the Wolves, especially with Collins - one of only three seniors on the team, along with Keappler and Paige Lamons - missing much of the early part of the season with an ankle injury and the team looking for an on-court leader.
"(Russell) told me I just needed to be a senior leader," said Keappler, one of Wesleyan's captains. "I just stepped up in that way, I guess. I don't really (feel any added pressure) because I've got a great team behind me."
That team also figures to be one on a mission.
After having a string of four straight Class AA/A state championships interrupted last season, Keappler says she and the rest of the Wolves are determined to get back to the top, beginning with Saturday's first-round match.
"We really want to win (another state title)," Keappler said. "I feel like we want it more than last year and we're working really hard."