Dedication pays dividends for ranked Norcross volleyball team

In June, not even two weeks after school got out for the summer, a gym full of Norcross volleyball players were working out together.

Four days a week.

All month.

"I'm talking 30-plus girls every single day," head coach Jeff Cerneka said. "When they don't have to be here.

"When I'm talking commitment, that's what I'm talking about. Honestly, I don't have to push them. They push me."

The transformation began last season in Cerneka's first year with the team. It continued through the summer and Norcross is among the best teams in the state right now.

"It starts with having a terrific coaching staff," Cerneka said. "They're dedicated and the girls love them. And the girls in the program are really outstanding.

"I think the program here was just waiting for somebody to come and give it some continuity."

Cerneka was 130-66 during a long tenure at Pomona High School in California before coming to Norcross. At Pomona, his teams made six playoff appearances, won three league championships and were twice runners-up.

"It's been really nice here," Cerneka said. "The girls on varsity, especially, have really set the standard. They've come to practice every day and worked hard. They support each other. They love to compete.

"Our goal -- and it's a challenge for us as coaches, too -- is just to bring high energy every single day. No matter what happens, play hard and strive to get better."

The Blue Devils have done all that. And more.

Ranked No. 10 in Class AAAAAA, Norcross is 22-3 overall and 4-0 in its area. All three of its losses went the distance and two were against ranked teams, Hillgrove in the first week of the season and North Cobb on Aug. 25.

"We've gotten better every week," Cerneka said. "We had a little success in the summer when we went to Auburn for a two-day tournament. We played well the second day and the coaches said we could push the kids a little bit.

"But the Forsyth Challenge was kind of the eye-opener."

It was there, despite falling to North Cobb, that the players realized they might be pretty good. It was what the coaches knew much sooner while watching practices.

Since its last loss, to Alpharetta, Norcross has won nine straight matches, including two come-from-behind wins over a very strong Milton squad.

In the most recent of those meetings, Milton won the first game 25-13.

"They're much bigger than us," Cerneka said. "They've got 6-foot, 6-foot-2 girls all across the line.

"They hammered us in the first game."

The Blue Devils were down 16-10 in the second game, but ground out a 25-20 victory and then claimed the third game fairly easily.

It's their ability to live in the moment that makes rallies like that possible. It's what Cerneka has been preaching since he arrived last year.

"What we do in practice, we don't even talk about winning," Cerneka said. "Most drills, I don't even keep score. We bring high energy and we just play. Our goal is to play hard on every point. The wins will take care of themselves."

The scary part, at least for the competition in Class AAAAAA, is Norcross keeps improving.

"They're just now starting to come into their own," Cerneka said.

Cerneka wants them to stay focused on the next match, though.

"You can get bitten a little when you start looking ahead," Cerneka said. "You also don't enjoy the journey as much when you've got your eyes on the prize.

"Especially my seniors, they're going to blink and it's going to be over. We talk about it all the time. My motto is to take it one match, one game at a time. Then if they don't get that point, they just move on to the next point."

Norcross has had some good seasons in the past, including winning an area championship in 2008 and making the Sweet Sixteen in 2009. But only three seniors on this team were around for that -- and they were on the freshman squad at the time.

"That group hadn't had a lot of success at the varsity level," Cerneka said.

The Blue Devils were OK last season, 18-19 overall. Nothing like what they've done this year.Norcross has a strong group of 13 girls that work well together, on and off the court. The team is led by a dynamic middle hitter in junior Sydney Marshall and senior libero Lindsay Holmes, who "throws herself all over the floor," Cerneka said.

"These kids want to work hard," he said. "They make it easy for me and the other coaches. We practice occasionally on Saturdays. They ask me to. They love the game.

"I feel lucky to be here. It's a great community and a great group of kids I've stepped into."