When the final match point was played at the Hartfield Lady Hawks’ game against Jackson Academy on August 17, the Hartfield gym erupted in cheers. The Lady Hawks had defeated the reigning MAIS volleyball champions 3-2 for the first time in regular-season play.
“There is always a lot of talk about these two teams and more now with the success we’ve had in recent years,” said Hartfield head coach Morgan McNeely. “We’ve never beaten JA in the regular season (but) we knew our roster was strong. Our players are mature and we know now what to expect.”
What Morgan McNeely has built at Hartfield is impressive. When he took charge of the Lady Hawks in 2016, the program had little interest and even less success. In the previous three seasons, the team had only registered one win. By his first season, there were only about 20 players in grades 7-11. The young group struggled in their first season under the new coach finishing with only five wins but gained experience and confidence. They posted 15 wins the next season and saw marked success in the junior high and JV programs. In 2018, the Lady Hawks went 28-5 and upset JA in the MAIS championship ending a four-year winning streak for the Lady Raiders.
The win solidified Hartfield as a contender and with the entire starting roster returning, they seemed primed for another run at the title. However, three weeks before the first game of the 2019 season, the team’s starting setter, Heidi Klein, suffered a season-ending injury. It was a major loss. Still, McNeely was able to rally the group and lead them to a rematch of the previous year’s championship game. The Lady Raiders proved to be too much for Hartfield, but McNeely recognized that he had something special.
The Lady Hawks are playing well early in the season. They are 23-2, undefeated in district play, and ranked No. 4 in the state and No. 1 in MAIS by MaxPreps. In 18 wins, the team has only lost eight total sets.
“I think we’ve got the best team in the state of Mississippi this year. Position by position, our girls have some of the best stats and are ranked in the top 2 or 3 of every position in the state.”
Hartfield has three of the state’s top 20 players to watch in Julia Dyess, Olivia Stegall, and Addie McNeely, the coach’s daughter. Dyess, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter leads the team in almost all categories and is ranked in the top 150 players in the nation in her classification. The senior has committed to Ole Miss making her the first Mississippi player to earn a full volleyball scholarship to an in-state DI school, according to Morgan McNeely. He said Dyess, who has been with the program since middle school, is a game-changer for the Lady Hawks.
“She can instantly change a match for you with one swing, with a serve, or with a pass,” said McNeely. “She is a competitor. She never wants to walk off the court thinking she has been outplayed.”
Addie McNeely adds to the offensive dominance of the Lady Hawks. The 6-foot right side is second in kills and aces. Along with her physical prowess, she is also the team’s vocal floor general.
“Last year at a young age, she turned into an on-the-court leader,” said Morgan McNeely. “She is our cheerleader on the court. She is the one jumping up and down and hooting and hollering no matter who scored a point. She is always the bloodline of the team.
Both Addie and Dyess were named to the 2019 All-MAIS team. They are continuing to dominate this year.
“Addie and Julia are both just completely on fire right now,” said Morgan McNeely. “They are both ranked one and two in almost every category for their position as well.”
Addie McNeely credits the success of the team on its chemistry and drive.
“We communicate very well and understand each other. We are a new team and none of us really played together as one before, (but) when we came into our first practice with the new transfers there was no lack of communication, it was great,” she said. “We just kind of have that fire like we are ready to go and win.”
Dyess believes that her team’s love of the sport and each other has given them a special bond.
“Most of us play club together and we are literally all best friends and that transfers onto the court,” Dyess said. “We enjoy seeing each other succeed and are each other’s biggest cheerleaders. On the court, you know the other girl has your back and we have a bond that’s unbreakable.”
Olivia Stegall transferred from Brandon High and came in and quickly made an impact. Her addition to the roster allowed Addie McNeely to return to her natural right side position. Stegall, a senior, ranks third in kills for the team.
The Lady Hawks also gets valuable floor time from senior Nikki Lawrence. According to Morgan McNeely, the 5’7” libero and leads in the state in digs.
“She is definitely our anchor in defense,” says Morgan McNeely. “She is the reason our offense plays at the level it does.”
Morgan McNeely says that he is pleased with the team’s performance.
“I still think the best is yet to come,” says Morgan McNeely. “I see us progressing in practice. I see us progressing in matches. We are getting comfortable in every situation. I’m very happy with where we are. I’m seeing all the things I want to see.”