The start of the school year is not just an indicator that high school football is near. It also means volleyball season is around the corner, and the SCHSL realignment of the regions will have big implications for several of the area’s top programs this season.


Former Class AAAA powerhouse Aiken will move down to Class AAA, leaving North Augusta and South Aiken to deal with Lexington, Irmo, River Bluff and White Knoll in Region 5-AAAA. All three of the teams will be on hand on Thursday as area squads prepare for the season in a scrimmage hosted by Aiken. It will be a season of new challenges and familiar high expectations for the trio of area teams.


The Aiken Hornets were the most successful of the group last year. The Hornets made it to the Class AAAA, Lower State title game before being beaten by Wando. Now, Aiken has a relatively young squad after losing six seniors, including standouts Ana Tovo and Emily Teelon.


The 2014 Aiken team is made up of two eighth graders, three ninth graders, three 10th graders, one 11th grader and three 12th graders. One of the biggest tasks head coach Malynda Young and the team will face is attempting to duplicate the close-knit atmosphere and trust last years team had, which she credited with that team’s success.


“They’re not quite there yet,” Young said of her team’s chemistry on the court. “But it’s because they’ve never played together. Some of the older ones have never been with some of the younger ones, and even some of the ones in between that may have played with some of the younger ones, have been playing with the varsity so they’ve had a little more experience. Experience is one thing we’ll try to bank on from the few older players.”


Among those expected to play a large role are a pair of returning All-Region 5-AAAA players: seniors Carly Bland and Taylor Mabry.


Bland is one of the team’s outside hitters, and Mabry will be handling the role of libero for the team again this year. Young said both players have good, solid play, and they know what they’re doing out on the floor. The teams other senior, Hannah Mitchell, will also see action at libero but will also play on the right side because of the experience she has.


“She’s shorter, but she’s got a the heart of gold and she’s probably our biggest leader on the team,” Young said of Mitchell. “She’s the one that gets everybody going.”


Alyssa Frazier and Maggie West are a couple of the younger players Young hopes blossoms. The tandem played together on a club team this summer, which Young is hoping pays dividends.


With the youth on the team this season is the first year the coach is thinking about rotating some of the younger varsity and JV players.


“Obviously I’d have to keep it within the game limits, but they need experience,” Young said. “They’re going to play for me, but I don’t want them to sit, when they could be gaining valuable experience.”


Aiken will be joining Region 5-AAA this season, which is home to Midland Valley, Gilbert, Airport, Brookland-Cayce and Swansea. Young expects region play to be tough but still sees the Hornets as a playoff contender.


“I think we’ll do fine in region. I’m not saying we won’t run across some tough teams, but I think we should be OK in region,” Young said. “We’re in a lot of tough tournaments. I don’t know how well we’ll do in those tournaments because of the competition, but we need it. We need the challenge, because once you get in the playoffs those are the kind of teams you’ll face.”


One team not overly down about Aiken’s departure is North Augusta. The Yellow Jackets lost to the Hornets in both region matchups last year. Head coach Lindsay Tucker believes it won’t hurt in their quest to make the playoffs this year after missing out a season ago.


“Last year we were very disappointed when we didn’t make the playoffs. So our first goal is to definitely make the playoffs and hopefully have a nice long run. We’re going to be both missing Aiken and enjoying the fact they aren’t in our region this year,” Tucker said laughing.


The two teams will still meet on Sept. 4 in North Augusta.


Desmonet Wilson, whom Tucker called an “all-around player,” will be the leader of the team this year. Tucker is pleased with the team’s overall cohesiveness.


Alli Bell is back at setter for the Yellow Jackets. The junior has been with the team since her freshman. Tucker had high praise for Bell.


“She’s just a strong presence on the court. She really understands the court, where everyone should be and what should be happening,” Tucker said. “So I’m really excited to have her back.”


South Aiken, another former region foe of the Hornets is gearing up for another year after losing a good bit of talent as well. Most notably Lauren Howard and Bailey Parker have moved on, leaving big shoes to fill, but head coach Laurie Ulmer is expecting good things from the players coming back.


Rachel Meyers, a sophomore, performed well for the T-Breds last season, and Ulmer said she’s seen promise from her. South Aiken faces a similar task as Aiken in terms of youth. However, that has Ulmer looking forward to even bigger goals down the road.


The T-Breds were eliminated by Aiken in the Lower State semifinals last season. For this season, the goal is to get more out of the offense.


“We’re hoping to build our middle and get some experience in the middle this year,” Ulmer said. “We’re just going to keep working and working. We’re trying to start to do more with our offense. We want to get our setters to do more to free up our hitters.”


Eric Russell covers sports for the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter @EricJ_Russell.


At a glance


What: Aiken County Varsity Volleyball Exhibition


Who: Aiken High, South Aiken, North Augusta, Midland Valley, Wagener-Salley, Ridge Spring-Monetta


Where: James A. Taylor Student Activities Center


When: Thursday, 5:30 p.m.