It’s no secret Blount County boasts two of the best football programs in the state.
What’s lesser known is that volleyball is on the rise in the community, creating a shootout in this week’s District 3-AAA tournament. The double-elimination tournament will be contested today through Thursday. The top two teams qualify for the regional tournament.
For the first time, the title is up for grabs among five programs, including Heritage, Maryville and William Blount.
“In Blount County, I think volleyball is definitely the underdog sport,” said Maryville senior Meg Mersman, one of the best hitters in the district. “We definitely don’t get enough recognition for it. I think if we’re able to get out of district and continue to grow, people are going to realize Blount County is more than just football.”
The higher level of competition is in large part due to the arrival of the K2 Volleyball Club.
Located in Louisville, the club was established a decade ago by Chris Hames and her husband, Jason.
Most of the players for Maryville, Heritage and William Blount have been involved with K2 in some capacity — whether it be through attending clinics or traveling around the country on its elite teams.
It’s showing on the court.
“The cool thing is the district is very even this year, so anybody could beat anybody in the district tournament,” Chris Hames said. “It could be an all-Blount County final. That’s realistic, easily.”
Farragut and Hardin Valley have long been the district frontrunners. Farragut has 10 state tournament appearances, including three trips to the finals, while Hardin Valley has advanced to state twice (2016-2017).
Last season, Heritage became the first Blount County volleyball program to reach state. All of its starters played K2 volleyball.
“Like with anything, you see success because kids are involved year-round,” Chris Hames said. “They’re investing their time and looking at, ‘Hey, maybe I want to go on to play in college.”
It has not only elevated the level of competition among local high schools, but served as a feeder system for college talent.
Tennessee’s roster includes a pair of players who hail from Blount County in sophomore libero Madison Coulter (Maryville) and freshman setter Kailey Keeble (Heritage). Both played K2 volleyball.
Mersman is among the K2 players slated to play Division I volleyball next season. She has committed to play for Lipscomb in Nashville — something she said she couldn’t have imagined before moving the Blount County.
Mersman grew up in Middle Tennessee, where she also competed on club programs.
“I had absolutely no intention of ever play college volleyball when I lived in Middle Tennessee,” Mersman said. “But here I am. After all my coaching at K2, I have a full-ride scholarship to a D1 school. It’s probably one of the most amazing things any girl in this community could have.”
K2 was established in Knoxville in 2009 before relocating to its facility off Topside Road two years later.
Hames estimates K2 has impacted about 300 athletes between its club teams and in-house programs. It has experienced an influx of Blount County athletes since relocating to Louisville, all but eliminating the gap separating those teams from the Knox County powerhouses.
“It’s always been the Farraguts and Hardin Valleys,” Hames said. “We’ve found less Farragut and Hardin Valley kids were kind of being a part of our program. That’s where you see the shift. We have always said whoever has the best K2 kids usually wins.”
The K2 club features some 30 coaches with no shortage of experience. A native of Australia, Hames represented her country by playing on the Australian Junior and Senior National Indoor and Beach Volleyball Teams. She also played setter at Oregon State University in 1992 and 1993.
Hames met her husband while playing beach volleyball in California. The couple eventually moved to Maryville, where Jason’s dad lived. Both have more than two decades of experience coaching. Chris Hames coached Webb to six straight state championships (2013-2018).
Jason Hames served as an assistant coach at Tennessee from 2009-2012, during which the Volunteers won the 2011 SEC championship and appeared in three NCAA tournaments.
If that weren’t enough, their resumes are also bolstered by the fact both of their daughters are playing at Division I stage. Their oldest, Nicklin, is a sophomore at Nebraska — the pinnacle of volleyball in the United States. She was the program’s first freshman setter.
Her sister, Kayleigh, is a freshman outside hitter at Pepperdine in Malibu, California. Both played K2 volleyball.
While Middle Tennessee has the population advantage, Mersman said East Tennessee has “better coaching and a better structured program.”
“It was a completely different world — nothing like what I’d been used to,” Mersman said. “Even at a young age, it is taken so seriously that they really help you grow. College volleyball is pretty much the end game at any age. It doesn’t matter how young you are.”
This year, all but handful for Maryville players play K2, and more than half the players for Heritage and William Blount do the same.
Heritage finally managed to bust through the district last season, defeating Farragut twice for District 3-AAA and Region 2-AAA championships.
While cross-county rivalries run deep, players with Maryville and William Blount put that aside and celebrated the Mountaineers’ feat.
“It’s awesome, especially with a county school like that because kids sort of overlook county schools,” said William Blount standout Jenna Forster, a K2 player and ETSU commit. “Like, ‘Oh they don’t have that great of talent,’ but they just came up from the bottom like any other team around here and just showed what they can do.”
This year, it’s unclear who will play that role. That unpredictability was evidenced by a potential five-way tie for first place that was in the cards on Sept. 24, when the teams were finishing up their district schedules.
Maryville, William Blount and Farragut all shared 3-2 records while Heritage and Hardin Valley were 4-1.
That night, Heritage defeated Farragut in five sets to claim a share of the regular-season District 3-AAA title. Heritage and Hardin Valley finished with 5-1 district records, with Heritage earning the No. 1 seed because of its head-to-head win over Hardin Valley.
Heritage’s matches against Hardin Valley, Farragut, William Blount and Maryville went to five sets.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Heritage coach Jason Keeble said. “There’s nothing more magically we can do to get ready to play. It’s just going to be more of the mental grind and who shows up ready on those particular days.”
William Blount has been the black horse under its new coach, Kendra Swafford. Coming off a 6-16 season, the Governors nearly took Hardin Valley out of that top spot before letting a 2-1 lead slip away en route to a loss that put them in fourth place behind No. 3 Maryville. It was the closest William Blount has come to defeating the Hawks.
A 2013 William Blount graduate, Swafford was a team captain and all-county player for the Govs. Now a coach for K2, she said the club wasn’t easily accessible to her when she was in high school as it had yet to move to Blount County.
“I didn’t want to drive all the way to Knoxville. My family couldn’t afford that,” Swafford said. “Watching them grow from beginning to now has been great to see. Volleyball has become different around here. Everybody’s base level is just so much higher than it used to be when I played.”
Jason Keeble, who also coaches at K2, said the key to its success has been consistency.
The club’s facility is large enough to accommodate all of its programs from ages 10 to 18, meaning K2 coaches can stay in sync with their training through the age ranks.
”It complements each other,” Jason Keeble said. “Several coaches in K2 are in the high school ranks so not only do we know the kids are getting the same training in K2 throughout the year, but when we go back to our high school gyms, we’re preaching the same thing.”
The rise of volleyball in Blount County is consistent with a national trend. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, volleyball was the No. 2 most popular girls sport in the nation in 2018 with 446,583 participants.
Since 2009, when 403,985 girls played, participation has increased by about 10 percent.
Heritage junior Zephanie Snyder — a staple of the Lady Mountaineers’ recent success — attributes the growth in Blount County to the achievements of its players and programs.
“We’ve set such a high level, and I feel like we have a big influence over the whole district and all the girls in the middle school,” Snyder said. “I think that’s drawing them to play. They’re realizing it could take them places they’ve never thought about.”
As the top seed in the district, Heritage has earned a first-round bye. The Mountaineers will play either William Blount or No. 5 Farragut on Tuesday. Maryville will take on No. 6 South-Doyle on Monday, and the winner will play either Hardin Valley or No. 7 Lenoir City on Tuesday.
Mersman called the outcome of the district tournament “a tossup.” She said seeing so many familiar faces on the other side of the net makes for an interesting dynamic.
“We’re able to be really competitive through the net because we do get the extra training that not everybody else gets,” Mersman said, “but also, at the end of the game, we’re patting each other’s backs because we’ve played with each other for so long.
”We all know each other and it just makes it so much more fun.”