Despite graduating nine seniors from a team that advanced to the regional finals last season, the song remains the same for Celina volleyball as it embarks on its latest playoff run.
The Lady Bobcats opened the postseason Thursday against North Hills Prep — a 3-0 sweep for Celina and a match that followed up the program’s second consecutive district championship run.
Whereas last year’s campaign was the culmination of hard work put in by a team chalked in senior leadership, Celina has replaced several of those key roles with underclassmen, including five freshmen contributing at the varsity level. Despite some early growing pains, the Lady Bobcats enter the playoffs on a seven-match win streak as part of an 11-1 record in district play.
“I couldn’t be more proud. The younger kids do play club and have that outside exposure where they’re able to continue working on their skills, but they’ve done great with the mental side as well,” said Ginger Murray, Celina head coach. “In club, they’re playing against kids their own age, whereas on varsity they’re going up against 17 and 18 year olds. It’s different, but they’ve stepped in and really showed how talented they are.”
Players like freshmen Ryan McCoy, Morgan Kelley, Ashley Woodrum, Kinsey Murray and Marissa Cortez have all experienced their first glimpse into the varsity limelight this season, while others like juniors Lexi Manning and Megan Hodges have thrived in larger roles on the team.
It didn’t come without some adversity during district play, however. The Lady Bobcats fell short in one of their biggest tests of the year on Sept. 25 after dropping a five-set match to a Van Alstyne club that posted a state runner-up finish last season.
“That was a tough one, but it was a good ‘light the fire’ loss,” Murray said. “They didn’t like that feeling and didn’t want to go through that anymore. That match really lit the girls up and was a good wake-up call.”
Murray said she saw that mental fortitude shine later on in 9-4A, particularly in back-to-back five-set wins over Melissa and Aubrey to help re-establish pursuit of a district title and work through the mental rigors they’d see down the road in the postseason.
“I told them, ‘This is playoff-type stuff right here and you’re going to have to get used to going four and five sets against teams,’” Murray said. “When you beat a team in three, a lot of the time you can’t work on the anxious stuff of working through adversity and fighting back. Nobody likes to go five sets, but it’s good as young as we are to get that experience.”
An Oct. 20 rematch with Van Alstyne didn’t require five sets, with the Lady Bobcats vanquishing the Lady Panthers in just three frames (25-23, 25-17, 25-12) during the second go-around. Adding to that moment of redemption was that it came on senior night — a ceremony that was a bit shorter than in 2019, with Celina rostering only one senior: the head coach’s daughter, libero Sage Murray. It’s been the leadership of the Lady Bobcats’ longtime defensive anchor that has helped the team reach such heights despite the heavy roster turnover from last season.
“She absolutely is just a joy to have,” coach Murray said. “Even my assistant coaches were telling me, ‘Forget that she’s your daughter. Just her being a leader and her energy on the court and the way she helps and nurtures these young ones, have you thought about what it’s going to be like next year?’ I said, ‘Why would I want to think about that?’
“She’s the ultimate leader. I’ve had parents, other coaches, referees and so many others talk to me about her presence on the court. It’s special to have someone like that.”
Although losing Sage to graduation will leave a noticeable void — both in terms of Celina’s make-up on and off the court — the prospect of returning 12 players next season has coach Murray optimistic about what lies ahead for her program.
“Knowing that we’re losing just one senior, we feel like we have a chance to be good for several years,” coach Murray said. “There are some great kids down on junior varsity and some of the eighth-graders coming in are going to give some players a run for their money. It’s really exciting to know how bright the future looks.”
Beforehand, the Lady Bobcats have to navigate this year’s postseason first. The bar is high, with last year’s run to the regional finals matching the deepest playoff run in program history. A return to the regional tournament won’t come easy, and just as Celina had to grow up during the regular season, the learning curve steepens with the team’s season hanging in the balance each match going forward.
“You can’t have ‘oh my gosh’ moments,” coach Murray said. “You have to feel that urgency but also continue to relax, have fun and enjoy this path that we’re about to go on,” Murray said. “Just enjoy the ride but play all out. I think everybody’s on board and ready to go.”