In high school sports, every so often an athlete enters a program with plenty of hype before even competing at the varsity level.
The McKinney North volleyball team currently sports a trio of star freshmen who check off this box. Lily Nicholson, Tinley Merder and Natalie Hughes all entered the season with plenty of buzz after dominating the last two seasons at Cockrill Middle School.
Although North’s volleyball program isn’t known for routinely producing blue-chip prospects, some volleyball observers feel any of the three freshmen could emerge as the most accomplished player the program has ever seen.
Despite the sky-high expectations, the entire trio has proven through the first half of the season that they all have the goods to potentially exceed that hype.
“It’s really cool and exciting to be coaching this team along with this special group of freshmen because I didn’t know about them when I took the job, but it’s very special to be coaching this high caliber of talent who’s also a great group of girls,” said Libby Rodriguez, North head volleyball coach. “Once I met them and their families, I got to see why they all three are so special because they each come from a special family. They’re all competitive and want to be the best, which is hard to find in high school athletes, and our team and them as a group will continue to get better as they continue to improve.”
The trio’s talents have been on full display since the first practice of the season, as each freshman sensation has carved out a big role for the Lady Bulldogs on a team lacking upperclassmen. Nicholson and Merder lead the team in assists, while Hughes does the same in blocks and is near the top in kills.
Nicholson was the first to make a splash, recording the only triple-double of the season so far for the Lady Bulldogs in her second home game and fifth game overall in her young career.
Thanks to playing in shadows of her talented sister Paige Anderson, a Boyd product and one of the top players in the program’s history, Nicholson, whose club team, Texas Advantage Volleyball, finished second in nationals this summer, knows a thing or two about dealing with high expectations.
“Starting last year, we started working to not turn the program upside down but to be better and we’ve fought and pushed and are already getting some good results, which only pushes us to work harder to help our team,” Nicholson said. “It feels really exciting to know the potential we have as a group and a team and I’m just happy to be a part of it and do my part.”
The trio points to the older girls accepting them with open arms from the first day of practice, which accelerated the group’s transition to high school volleyball. With the freshman trio all thriving in starting roles, North is currently on a nine-game winning streak and just became only the fifth team in program history to win 20 games or more with its big district victory over Princeton on Tuesday.
“With us being three freshmen with no varsity experience, we didn’t know what to expect, but the fact our teammates accepted us from the jump and want us to be the best we can be is a great feeling,” Merder said. “It’s surreal that the three of us have a big part on this team as freshmen because you can’t script that. But it’s even more exciting that our team has great girls who are talented as well, which is a big reason we are winning because our team and winning games are the main focus over being a great group of freshmen.”
For a microcosm of what type of tone the dynamic trio is setting, North is trending toward a single-season program record for wins in just the trio’s debut campaign. Combined with the talent already on the roster and camaraderie set up by North’s upperclassmen, the golden age of North volleyball could be on the horizon.
“It’s just a cool opportunity to get to play with Lily and Trinity, along with this great group of girls and coaches, and I’m enjoying every minute of that,” Hughes said. “Finding ways to get better and never settling will continue to make us better and I’m excited to see how far we go in the playoffs this season.”