Region 5-AAAA looks to be wide open this volleyball season.
The league – previously 4-AAAA before the most recent round of realignment – has come down to Aiken and South Aiken in each of the last two years, with Aiken winning each time thanks to a tiebreaker.
The Hornets come into the season as defending champions and fresh off another Upper State title appearance, but the region schedule will once again be anything but a cakewalk.
"It looks like South Aiken and North Augusta are both really strong, so it should be a fun year," said Aiken head coach Malynda Young. "It should be a battle. We should have some good battles to watch."
Aiken returns two All-Aiken Standard selections in Payton Tyler and Aubrey Crump. Young has six returning seniors, some of whom are playing in different positions than last year, and she has a deep bench. It'll be a matter of plugging in the right players at the right time and keeping the bigger teams – Young's team lacks height aside from junior middle Destiny Mays – out of system.
South Aiken, which features a big mix of sophomores and juniors with four seniors to lead them, will rely heavily on discipline, passing and defensive aggressiveness. The T-Breds have three returning All-Aiken Standard selections – heavy hand in the middle Emily Crenshaw, experienced sophomore setter Christa Berry and co-captain and libero Taylor Butts.
"Over the last couple years, we really graduated the whole lineup from when I first started," said South Aiken head coach Cassie McKie. "We're really building with that young group last year, and now they're the upperclassmen this year."
The new challenger could be North Augusta, which took its lumps last year as a very young team but comes into this season much improved. Madison Evans, Shelby Hutto and Madison Corley are defensive leaders, Shelby Higgenbottom is a player to watch in the middle and Shelby Smith and Preslee Trahan are strong on the outside.
"We're still a really young team, but we've come a long way," North Augusta head coach Kenneth Grier said. "This team is way better than last year. I'm kind of proud of them. I've got an all-state defensive player and an offensive player that probably could make all-state, too. So we're coming along."
Midland Valley, which earned the region's No. 3 seed last year, comes into the season without a couple of familiar faces. Madilyn Reed, the Aiken Standard Player of the Year, and head coach Jim Dziczkowski, now an assistant principal, have moved on. Samantha Whittaker is the Mustangs' new head coach.
Airport finished last in the region last year, and Brookland-Cayce joins the fun after finishing third in Region 5-AAA last year behind undefeated champion Strom Thurmond.
The Rebels graduated a strong senior class that included three All-Aiken Standard honorees and two All-State selections, and they'll look to defend their region title in a league that's one team lighter following Brookland-Cayce's jump to Class AAAA.
Fox Creek and Silver Bluff are new region opponents, each moving over to the new Region 2-AA along with Abbeville, Batesburg-Leesville, Ninety Six and Saluda. The Predators and Bulldogs each made it to the second round of the state playoffs last year.
Silver Bluff coach Helen Drayton expects great things from her young team, which she said is full of disciplined and coachable players. Jamea Monroe is the captain and an all-around player like Erica Childers. Middle blockers Kylie Parham and Rauri Crawford are expected to be strong contributors, as is libero Aynslee Widener.
Barnwell no longer shares a region with Silver Bluff, remaining in Region 5-AA in the Lower State. The Warhorses were a No. 3 seed last year in the playoffs.
Wagener-Salley cruised through Region 3-A last year with a 13-1 record, and head coach Shane Hutto said the War Eagles are setting their expectations on another region title run. They lost three key seniors but have seven of them coming back to fill those roles. Man'Daja Cunningham has a big presence in the middle, Lasy Williams is a returning outside hitter and eighth-grader Kaley Garvin runs the show at setter.
Ridge Spring-Monetta took the No. 2 seed in Region 3-A last year, and Gail Johnson said she has a young team that's been timid so far – but she knows they can play better. Returning leaders include All-State selection A'Kyra Davis, Mikayla Middlebrooks, Jaliyah Bussey and Camaya Brown.
Williston-Elko is eyeing a return to the playoffs after missing out last season.