In high school sports, the characteristics that blend together — including experience, chemistry, coaching, bonding and talent — never stay the same from one season to the next.
Stephenville High School’s 2019 volleyball team has only four seniors, but is heading into the playoffs with momentum that could be hard to stop. Stephenville’s starting libero, senior Gabie Lucero, earned all-state status last season. The other seniors this year are setter Karlee Easterling, outside hitter Salette Rios and opposite hitter Aubreyanna Ziegler.
Coach Shay Douglas’s Honeybees (33-9) blasted through District 7-4A undefeated (8-0) to snatch the crown away from three-time defending league champion Glen Rose.
Stephenville’s first-round playoff (bi-district) pairing is against Bridgeport, the fourth-place team out of District 8 with a 2-6 record. The “Sissies,” as they are known (Bridgeport’s boys teams are the Bulls) had a 25-15 season record going into a practice game they had scheduled Friday, Nov. 1 against Ponder.
Sixth-ranked Argyle (32-5) and No. 20 Decatur (29-13), finished first and second in that district, respectively. Decatur was the team that eliminated Stephenville from last year’s Region I-4A tournament final, then went on to win the 4A state championship.
The Honeybees completed district play on Tuesday with a 25-21, 25-16, 26-24 road triumph over rival Brownwood, the district’s runner-up. That was their 11th consecutive victory, and 16th in their last 17 contests.
In the latest Texas Girls Coaches Association Class 4A poll, the Honeybees are ranked 15th in the state.
“It’s really exciting. We’ve all been working really hard in the offseason. For it to pay off and us to win district undefeated, it’s amazing,” said senior Karlee Easterling, a setter who has two full seasons as a varsity letter-winner, and also was brought up from the junior varsity late in the season her sophomore year. “We try to stay positive and focus on the good things we’ve done.”
Landri Withers, a sophomore middle blocker who was voted as the district’s co-Newcomer of the Year last season along with teammate Alee McClendon, described the winning feeling by saying, “It’s like, amazing. I’m really blessed to be part of a great team. I have amazing teammates. I feel like if we just keep working hard, we can go far.”
McClendon, a junior middle blocker, said, “It’s like a really good feeling. I’m proud of all of my teammates, and all the work we’ve put in. It has been a really fun season. It shows all the hard work has paid off.”
McClendon said that the team’s bonding, in addition to the winning streak, has also contributed to confidence growing among the players since the season began.
“I think our confidence has grown. I think it came with team bonding. We are confident everybody can do the job,” McClendon said, adding that Douglas has encouraged the players by telling them not to be afraid to make an “aggressive” mistake.
Coach Douglas had coached at Troy and Giddings before returning to her alma mater as the head coach of the Honeybees after Fran Metzger announced she was retiring from coaching after the 2017-2018 school year. Metzger’s 2003 squad captured the only volleyball state championship in school history.
When asked about that state championship season, Douglas recalled that the 2003 Honeybees went through the entire season without being listed among the state volleyball rankings.
That resulted in the printing of T-shirts that bore the message, “No ranking, no respect.” Douglas said that the 2003 squad used that as a motivational factor on their way to shocking everyone on the way to a 42-6 season record and the state title.
“Nobody knew about us,” Douglas said of that state championship squad. “We just kind of did our thing. It was a competitive group.”
In a similar angle, this year’s squad has the second-most wins in the state among Class 4A teams entering the playoffs, but the Bees have not been rewarded with a spot among the top 10 in the TGCA poll. Douglas said that the Bees were at No. 10 in the state rankings published online by MaxPreps — rankings done by computer, taking into account the strength of schedule.
The team had most of their losses early in the season to larger schools in tournament play, and may not have been expected to soar to such heights, Now, however, they are opening some eyes.
They found a way to maintain their focus during their smooth run through district play without losing a set.
“If anything, we had to have gotten mentally tough,” Douglas said. “It was stressful for us to stay mentally focused and continually push ourselves. We had a target on our backs, to be beaten.”
With some significant graduation losses, the Bees turned to the quiet leadership of senior Lucero, who was a consistent anchor in the middle as the libero last season, when the Bees posted a 29-18 record and reached the Region I-4A final.
First-team all-district performers Jayci Morton and Chloe Goodman were lost to graduation. Junior middle blocker Jaydi Griffin has varsity experience and was expected to play a key role this season but has been sidelined with a knee injury, had surgery, and is expected to be back for her senior year. On the plus side, there are only three in the starting rotation of eight that were not on the varsity last season.
“Our chemistry has grown,” Douglas said. “This team is very serious. They are taking care of business. I don’t get a sense of selfishness.
“Gabie is softspoken, but is our vocal leader. She has taken over (in that role) from Jayci. Our four seniors are a big part of what we do, but we also have juniors that play a big part. We preach the fundamentals. My expectation hasn’t changed one bit, because they do the little things in practice. I think we can still improve as a team, and they want to improve. And I think we have a special group.
“We talk a lot about taking one ball at a time, one day at a time. Ultimately we have a goal to get back to the regional tournament, and ultimately go to state. I tell them, we’re 0-0 now, guys. We’re playing together. You can beat some big-time teams if you do it together.”
STATS VS. BROWNWOOD
In Tuesday’s win over Brownwood, the Lady Lions led SHS 18-15 in the first set and 24-21 in the second set. But the Bees rallied to take both of those games, then held off the Lady Lions 26-24 in the third.
Stat leaders from the win at Brownwood were:
Blocked shots — Emma Giddings 2.
Aces — Gabie Lucero 2.
Kills — Landri Withers 11, Jaylee Matthews 9.
Assists — Kennedy Coffee 20, Karlee Easterling 19.
Digs — Gabie Lucero 17, Salette Rios 13.
UP FROM JV
With Tuesday’s Brownwood game marking the end of the JV season, three players have been moved up to the varsity for the playoffs. They are Laura Henriksen, Ansley Chick and Reese Weyers.