Staff Photo: John Bohn - North Gwinnett players Gretja Otten (23) and Anna Mullins (9) celebrate a point against Milton during the state tournmanet last season.
After three straight appearances in the Sweet 16 in the state's highest classifications, two straight Area 7-AAAAA titles and two straight No. 7 final state rankings, North Gwinnett seems on the brink of climbing even higher into the elite of Georgia's high school volleyball scene.
And the Bulldogs appear to have the building blocks to make that climb as the 2012 season gets under way Tuesday with a home play date against Brookwood, Dacula and Chamblee.
The main building blocks are four returning senior starters -- first-team All-County selections Kristina Stinson and Miller Howard and second-team selection MaTia Hughes, along with Greja Otten -- with a wealth of big-game experience.
And with a hungry group of youngsters bolstering the team's depth, head coach Vanessa Henry is optimistic this could a season of major accomplishments for the Bulldogs.
"We've got a really good core coming back," Henry said. "(Stinson, Howard, Hughes and Otten) are a solid four, and we've got about three others who can move into the starting lineup at any time."
Still, it will be the big four that the Bulldogs look to for leadership.
Georgia State-committed Stinson (404 kills, 14 service aces, 130 digs, 42 blocks last season) and Howard (386 kills, 283 digs, 79 aces) and Otten will be the main targets.
However, newcomers like Carson Nevels will give North plenty of offensive options.
In fact, the 6-foot sophomore has improved her game dramatically over the some in a similar manner to which Henry says Howard did this time last year to give the Bulldogs a boost.
"She's really stepped up (over the offseason)," Henry said of Nevels. "She's left-handed and has a lot of power. And she was one of our hardest workers this summer."
But it is Hughes who may prove to be the key to just how far the Bulldogs go.
After serving as the team's defensive leader at libero with 382 digs last season, Hughes moves over to setter this year to try to fill some very big shoes.
Four-year letter-winner and three-year All-County selection Alex Panks, now playing collegiately at North Alabama, was one of the few losses to graduation from last year, and gone with her is four years of her consistent leadership of the North offense.
But Henry has all the confidence that Hughes will be able to step in and direct traffic and set up the big hitters at the net well enough for the team to continue its upward climb.
"We do have to rebuild a little without Alex and Anna (Mullins)," Henry said. "But MaTia's got leadership skills, too. She's also stepped up a lot (during the summer)."
The Bulldogs will get some quick early tests, not only with the opening play date that includes defender Class AAAAA Elite Eight qualifier Brookwood, but also with a tournament next weekend that includes matches against lower classification powerhouses like Wesleyan, Blessed Trinity and Woodward Academy.
It should be good preparation to help the Bulldogs try to battle the likes of Mill Creek, Collins Hill, Peachtree Ridge and Mountain View for yet another championship in the revamped Area 6-AAAAAA.
"All those teams were in the Elite Eight in their (respective) classifications last year, so that will be good for us," Henry said. "And we've still got some tough teams in our (area). So, we've still got work to do."