Volleyball Pre-Season Preview

By Steven Thomson

Pearland Lady Oilers

Fresh off the program's first district championship since 2015, an experienced and hungry Pearland squad will begin the 2023 season striving to achieve higher goals.

The Oilers took the first steps last season, winning the District 23-5A title with a 12-0 record.

Pearland advanced to the third round of the playoff before dropping a five-set decision to Clear Springs.

The third round has been perennial roadblock for the Oilers. A 15-11 loss in the deciding fifth set against Clear Springs showed how close the team came to the elusive regional tournament spot.

"(The regional tournament) is definitely a goal of ours," Pearland coach Jamie Gill said. "When the match was over against Springs, they realized that if a couple of things had gone a different way, they could have had that match. A lot of it is believing that you can win."

Five returning starters and a solid supporting cast has produced a lot of confidence that this is the season that the Oilers can take that next step.

Gill was a setter for Friendswood when it made three trips to the state tournament in the early 2000s, so she knows what needs to be accomplished.

Pearland's chances will revolve around junior setters Cora Wofford and Emily Brock. Both are veterans of last year's team.

"As a setter, I take that position very seriously," Gill said. "The setter is the quarterback of the team, so they need to be successful. Both of my setters have done a fantastic job. They are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were last year."

Returning middle blockers Kimanni Rugley and Allie Schwartz will also be crucial to the Oiler attack.

"I love using the middle," Gill said. "A fast option is very important to establish the block on the other side. Both of our middles are dominant."

Pearland's volleyball tradition has always emphasized a strong defense. Gill believes that can continue this season with a strong group battling to see who can take the court on the back row.

A large contingent of returning varsity players allowed the Oilers to jump start their preparations for the 2023 season.

"We are light years ahead of where we were last year," Gill said. "This is a totally different group of girls, mentally and physically. They have already talked about what their season goals are and what they want to accomplish."

Early practice sessions and scrimmages created a large pool of prospective varsity players to choose from. Competition for starting spots on the other two levels should be stiff as well.

Gill used a lot of six-on-six practice sessions to give everyone a chance to showcase their skills and abilities.

"I have some amazing freshmen and my JV team is stacked," Gill said. "From (grades) nine through twelve, we have players we can pull from. On varsity, we have girls who are so versatile that they can play back and front row and hit left side and right. That is what is going to make us special. If one person is struggling, we have a team that has their back."

Dawson Lady Eagles

Dawson volleyball coach Lauren Leth is tasked with solving a problem that many programs would love to have.

The Eagles made it to the 6A region III tournament for the sixth consecutive season in 2022 before losing in the semifinals to Cinco Ranch.

Leth has been at the helm for the last five of those after taking over from former coach Jason Karim.

It was an unexpected bonus for a inexperienced team featuring a repurposed setter. And it got Leth to thinking about how Dawson could overcome the final hurdle and make it to the state level.

"This year, we are changing up some of our game strategies to try to win more small moments," Leth said. "At the regional tournament, it is point for point. it boils down to a lot of those small moments."

Starting with the first week of practice, Eagles players are working on new practice and game strategies to achieve that purpose. Gone are setting advance goals of winning district and making a deep playoff run.

"It's a different approach," Leth said. "It's not forward thinking at all. We are working in the moment. When we get to where it counts, at the regional tournament, we are able to string those small moments together."

Dawson should be well prepared to make that challenge with a squad that includes four returning starters and nine seniors. It is the most experience laden team that Leth has had.

That has allowed the Eagles to hit the ground running after a hectic start in 2022.

Needing to replace a four-year starter at setter, Leth encountered another setback when she lost Makenzie Petten.

"We did not have another setter ready at that time that could run the pace that our varsity plays at," Leth said. "I had to take one of our outsides (Addison Moss) and train her fast and furious in August. She did an excellent job."

Moss, a Boise State commit, was able to helm Dawson's 5-1 offense well enough to lead a run to the region semis.

Petten is back at setter this season, allowing Moss to return to a front line stacked with experience.

"That gives us the ability to run our drills more quickly," Leth said. "We can immediately jump into running higher level things in a competitive environment."

The Eagles have a lot of choices in the middle and on the outside.

Kennedy Jones, Keaton Points and Gracie Williams are set to run the middle, with Moss joining Dominique Phills, Emmarie McFarland, Hailey Prodan and Kendyll Knox on the outside.

"They are even," Leth said. "There is not an obvious one or two. They have all worked hard in the off season and are coming in ready."

Having options at every position is a rarity for Leth.

"At Dawson, we have already struggled with quality depth," Leth said. "We don't have the numbers coming through our program that larger schools have."

Friendswood Lady Mustangs

The past two seasons have been unusual and unsatisfying ones for the Friendswood volleyball. Both saw the Mustangs place second in district and advance to the third round of the playoffs.

Those results might be acceptable to some, but not to a program that has made 10 trips to the state tournament.

After using a youthful lineup to fashion a 34-12 record in the 2022 season, Friendswood coach Sarah Paulk hopes the added experience will return her team to the level of past achievements.

"All through the off season, we talked about not wanting to finish in the third round," Paulk said. "We want to get back to competing for district championships. It is something that they are all focused on. It is definitely our goal to get back to the regional tournament."

The primary obstacle in the path to both achievements is district rival Manvel. The Mavericks has swept the Mustangs the past two seasons and made it to the regional finals in 2022.

Nine seniors highlight a squad that features six returning starters. Paulk began practices needing to replace a libero and a middle blocker.

Competition for all spots on the floor will be tough with the addition of younger players.

"Last year, we had a lot of young kids that had to play big roles," Paulk said. "They were talented, but they had to grow a bit more. We have better chemistry than we started with last year. The kids get along better."

Expected to step in at middle blocker is Preslee Alaniz, a 5-11 junior who is stepping up from the junior varsity level.

Filling the libero position will be senior Andi Vaught, who Paulk describes as a good leader.

Sophomore Nadi'ya Shelby, a 6-0 outside hitter, put together an impressing freshman campaign that earned her District 18-5A newcomer of the year honors. Shelby is currently ranked as one of the top 25 players in the nation.

Senior Meghan Donoghue and sophomore Caroline Adams return as the two setters.

"We are working on running the middle a lot," Paulk said. "Service receive is going to be huge. We want a lot of depth, so we need to know who can play certain positions and what rotations work the best."

Injuries and illness derailed the Mustangs playoff chances last season, leaving them shorthanded when it counted most.

"By the time we got to Fulshear (in the third round), we were pretty beat up," Paulk said. "We had eight kids with the flu. That is why you have to prepare for it. You have to focus on your depth."

Friendswood's pre-district schedule is stacked with high quality competition. Included are a return to the competitive Pearland tournament and a long-awaited journey to a similar event in Orlando.

Paulk hopes that will prepare the Mustangs for league play, where Manvel will again pose the toughest challenge.

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Cora Wolford

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Kimanni Rugley

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Allie Schwartz

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Addison Moss

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Kennedy Jones

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Front row (l-r): Olivia Thompson, Nadi'Ya Shelby, Mackenzie Harris, Haley Patton, Andi Vaught, Meghan Donoughue, Alex Garcia, Hallie Harris, Anna Melgren

Second row (l-r): Sydney Gibson, Taliah Benson, Preslee Alaniz, Natalie Williams, Isabella Thompson, Caroline Adams, Charley Mcbee, Jordyn Sims