In recent years, the McKinney North volleyball team has showcased a knack for knocking down one milestone after another.
The Lady Bulldogs have emerged as one of the area’s top programs in Class 5A under head coach Libby Rodriguez, now in her third season at the helm. North turned in a landmark 2020 campaign after winning a playoff match for just the second time in program history and then parlaying that into the team’s first-ever appearance in the regional finals.
If the Lady Bulldogs needed reason to believe they’re capable of building off that feat, last Friday made for some fairly compelling evidence.
North batted down one more milestone in its conquest through District 10-5A with a 3-0 sweep of perennial powerhouse Lovejoy, the two-time defending 5A state champions. The Lady Bulldogs’ first-ever victory over the Lady Leopards headlined a 6-0 start to conference play leading up to Friday’s home match with Wylie East.
“This team is really talented and it really came down to them just allowing themselves to relax and play. I think that this team is becoming a little bit more seasoned and the experience is really starting to take over,” Rodriguez said.
The Lady Bulldogs aren’t lacking in continuity, returning their leading hitter (senior Sydney Huck), passer (junior Lily Nicholson) and libero (junior Tinley Merder) from last year. But no two seasons are the same, and an up-and-down finish to the preseason that included losses to Class 6A powers McKinney Boyd (3-0) and Marcus (3-1) had Rodriguez preaching a sense of urgency heading into district play.
“After the Boyd match, we had some ‘Come to Jesus’ talking and tried to figure out what it is we’re working towards and what they expect out of themselves,” she said. “We reset our expectations and refocused on our big-picture goals.
“We talked about having a sense of urgency and it’s definitely picked up a couple of notches. Once we get closer to playoffs, we want to take it up even more. Hopefully as the season progresses, our urgency does even more.”
That message was received loud and clear. North entered Friday’s matchup against East without having dropped a set in district play and only three sets with an opponent scoring at least 20 points. That even held up against Lovejoy, at the time ranked No. 2 in 5A by Texas Volleyball Insiders and the Texas Girls Coaches Association, with North gutting out a pair of 26-24 wins in sets one and two before putting away the Lady Leopards 25-18 in the third stanza.
“Everyone was firing on all cylinders. I think it’s the first time all season where everybody was on and focused,” Rodriguez said. “They were doing their jobs and playing for the person next to them. I felt like our chemistry and cohesion was on a whole other level, which is what I had foreseen for this team all season. It was just a matter of time before they figured it out and went with it.”
It also helped to have the top hitter on the floor. Huck had her way with a talent-rich Lovejoy defense with 19 kills accrued over just three sets, good for an average of 6.3 per set. Junior Natalie Hughes chipped in 12, while Nicholson dished out 39 assists (more than Lovejoy’s combined team total of 30) and Merder logged 23 digs as part of a defense that limited the Lady Leopards to just .159 hitting as a team.
“It was such a big team effort and so awesome to see everybody firing and doing a fantastic job for us,” Rodriguez said. “We spent a lot of time watching film on them and trying to pick apart things they did well and how it would affect us. It came down to us mentally preparing for a battle since Lovejoy is such a great team, and I was really proud of the girls for how they showed up and didn’t back down. They kept attacking.”
It was a result North has had its eye on for some time. Impressive as the Lady Bulldogs’ 2020 campaign, including a 23-4 record, three of the team’s four losses came at the hands of Lovejoy — twice in district play and a third time in the regional finals, all three coming by scores of 3-0.
“In my first year when I took over, I said, ‘We will beat Lovejoy.’ It’s going to be whether or not we decide to make it happen,” Rodriguez said. “It was cool to see them check one thing off their list. We want to make this program one of the best — myself, our staff and all our kids.
“It was really exciting and I think it gives confidence. It gives our girls the confidence of knowing that they can compete with the best.”
At this rate, North could have ample chances to do so — in addition to the Lady Bulldogs, who checked in at No. 6 in 5A in the latest TGCA state poll, teams like Highland Park (No. 1), Frisco Reedy (No. 7), Midlothian (No. 18) and North Forney (No. 25) are among other state-ranked teams in Region II.
There’s also the looming district rematch with Lovejoy (No. 8), set for Oct. 19 in Lucas. Rodriguez and her staff have worked to guard against any lapse in performance following the team’s win over the Lady Leopards, emphasizing the perspective of the moment.
“Coming off a big win like that where emotions are just about the highest they can be, you’ve got to come back for the remainder of district and also play them again,” Rodriguez said. “There’s always a chance you might have woken the beast, so it’s about us being ready to battle and keeping our focus — it was big for us to beat them, but that’s not our ultimate goal. We have to keep our eyes on that big-picture goal and why we’re still here and grinding.”
The Lady Bulldogs still have plenty of time to gear up for that anticipated rematch, returning to action at 6 p.m. Tuesday for a home match against Princeton.