This week marks the beginning of the 2019 volleyball season, with teams having completed tryouts and preparing for the first round of preseason tournaments.
As teams tinker with lineups, break in new starters and reignite chemistry from last season, the early weeks of volleyball season are rife with compelling storylines around the area. That includes teams in Plano ISD, Allen and Lovejoy, and here’s an early look at where those respective programs are at heading into the first week of the season.
Taylor Raglin: There’s only one true goal on the West side of Plano this fall – state semifinalists a season ago, the Lady Wolves will return nearly their entire team in their quest to win the program’s first state title.
With a year of experience under his belt, now-permanent West head coach Justin Waters will essentially lose only 2018 9-6A Co-Defensive Player of the Year Haley Hoang among the Lady Wolves’ top contributors from a season ago. Seniors Iman Ndiaye (a UCLA commit) and Jill Pressly (DePaul) will be back on the outside, with plenty of other talent around them – fellow senior and 9-6A first-teamer Sydney Yap (Duke) returns, as does a trio of second-team juniors in Ashley Le (Virginia), Avery Lowe and Lindsey Zhang. West also picked up a key transfer in former Prestonwood Christian outside hitter Noelle Piatas (Miami), joining the fold to make it five Division I players on the West roster.
In short, the only true storyline for the Lady Wolves in 2018 is the quest for gold – with arguably the best team they’ve ever had, anything less will likely be viewed as not fully making good on the club’s potential.
Matt Welch: The Lady Wildcats were thrown a curveball not long before the start of the season following head coach Teri Minnis’ decision to accept an assistant principal job in Dallas ISD — ending the coach’s seven-year tenure with Plano volleyball.
The team still turns to a familiar face for guidance leading into the season, with assistant Kaylin Kelley promoted to interim head coach, and she’ll be tasked with keeping Plano afloat in what figures to be among the state’s more competitive districts.
In addition to Kelley acclimating to the varsity spotlight as a head coach, the Lady Wildcats have a couple key personnel questions to sort through — namely how to generate steady offense with the longstanding setter-hitter combo of Faith Panhans and Julia Adams off to college.
Replacing two players of that caliber would be a tall order for any program, and Kelley noted that Plano could look to generate more of its offense through its defense’s ability to keep the ball in play. The Lady Wildcats are solid on the back line with sophomore Naylani Feliciano looking to build off an all-district freshman year, while sophomore Brooke McHale returns after finishing second on the team in kills last season.
Kelley mentioned juniors Brittney Rose and Christy Winkler as names in the mix to handle setting duties for Plano.
Taylor Raglin: In direct opposition to their counterparts on the West side, things are in near-total flux for the Lady Panthers. After the mid-season departure of former head coach Scott Sandel, assistant Jennessa Gattis took over the program on an interim basis before local club coach Cathy Manderson was eventually handed the permanent reins.
Manderson, herself, will have to settle in, but she’ll also have to break in many a new varsity athlete – seniors Nicole Anderson, Danielle Dion, Jenna Deggs, Nicole Anspach, Alex Weiss, Sarah Eubanks and Jasmine Reiter have all been lost to graduation.
There are certainly some talented returners with potential back on the roster, though in a stout District 9-6A that features multiple state contenders, this season will be all about getting Manderson’s reign off to a positive start and prepping the program for success down the line.
Matt Welch: With last season’s 0-12 district campaign in the rearview mirror, the Lady Eagles are hopeful a year chock-full of hard-luck injuries, growing pains and underclassman-heavy lineups will be rewarded in 2019.
Any senior leadership and returning experience leading into last season was almost entirely relegated to the bench and in street clothes, with Allen ravaged by the injury bug in 2018 — leading to moments where head coach Kelley Gregoriew had nowhere to turn but to a cast of freshmen and sophomores to try and stay afloat in one of the state’s premier volleyball districts.
The end result was five underclassmen — junior Callie Kemohah, sophomore Tori Wilson, junior Maya Joseph, sophomore Emily Canaan and junior Maddie Wendland — leading the Lady Eagles in sets played last season.
The upshot of that baptism by fire is that practically all of Gregoriew’s end-of-season rotation is back this year and, assuming Allen can keep them all on the court, the Lady Eagles have the experience and pedigree to wedge their way into the playoff discussion. Things still won’t come easy in 9-6A, particularly with Plano West and Prosper still lurking, but the Lady Eagles’ continuity is nearly unrivaled within the district.
Taylor Raglin: Though the Lady Leopards will join the ranks of local teams under the direction of a new head coach, the program’s new leader is, in fact, a familiar face. Ryan Mitchell, who won five straight championships with the school from 2008-2012, will take over for the departing Jason Nicholson.
Mitchell will inherit a team on the verge of winning another title, as the Lady Leopards fell in the state final a season ago and return impactful pieces in sophomore setter Averi Carlson and junior TCU commit Cecily Bramschreiber, among others.
The rub, then, is whether or not Mitchell and the Lady Leopards can gel and reproduce the kind of overwhelming dominance the program is accustomed to – in 2018, the school finished 47-7 and won more than 20 matches in a row before falling in the 5A final. Given the coach’s track record, the Lady Leopards’ young stars and the program’s ability to continually replace alums each year, the club should be among the area’s few that considers itself a true state-title contender in 2019.