The Plano East volleyball team, sporting just four seniors on its roster, experienced the full spectrum of highs and lows brought about by that inexperience in a five-set loss to Bishop Lynch Tuesday.
In the first two sets, a lack of finishing reared its ugly head, as the Lady Panthers faded from ties of 16-16 and 12-12 to drop consecutive sets, 25-19 and 25-20. Then, with their backs against the wall, the Lady Panthers rattled off two 25-19 wins of their own in frames three and four, running away from an 18-18 tie in set three and holding off a late Lynch charge in set four.
While set five didn’t go the Lady Panthers’ way after a spirited, back-and-forth battle – Lynch took the game, 24-22 – first-year East head coach Cathy Manderson said her program’s effort is a glimpse into the potential of her young Lady Panthers, provided they can get out of their own way.
“They’ve dramatically changed from the first time we stepped out here. We have a lot of young players, so learning how to play the fast-paced game that we’re going to be playing in 6A has posed a challenge, because they’re having to step up and play against a lot more mature teams,” Manderson said. “But they’ve done a really great job. … As we saw (Tuesday), they’re willing to step up and incorporate new things into their play. That’s going to carry them through this season.”
Tuesday’s early-match growing pains have been a theme for the Lady Panthers, who will now gear up for the start of District 9-6A play Friday when they’ll host McKinney Boyd at 6:30 p.m.
While the school’s conference schedule is an arduous one that sees them take on some of the state’s elite programs, and Manderson said she doesn’t expect those youthful slip-ups to go away any time soon, the first-year Lady Panther bench boss is also optimistic about her athletes’ ability to surpass expectations.
“We’re going to continue having those growing pains. Probably next season, we’re really going to solidify and come together and be a little bit more of a force. … But they’re doing an excellent job,” she said. “As (we saw) in the last couple of sets, they’re really coming together. Once they get it, I feel – and maybe I’m just their coach, I’m kind of like mama bear – I feel like they’ll be unstoppable and (be able to) take any team.”
Currently leading the charge are sophomore transfer Tayah Little and senior Taylor Thackery, who Manderson said provide the team with much-needed communication on the court.
Little also stepped up in big moments Tuesday, getting the final kill in sets three and four to help engineer the Lady Panthers’ near-comeback.
“(Tayah’s) transformed our game in the fact that she has incredible athleticism, but her work ethic and the way she talks and the way she knows the game really bring the team together,” Manderson said. “Taylor, who is one of our seniors, does really well at communicating. … (She’s also) able to kind of force the offense to do certain things, and she really tries to push her other players to do more. Right now, they’re kind of the nucleus of the team.”
Moving forward into this season and beyond, Manderson is excited about the talent among her underclassmen.
In particular, she said Tuesday’s match was the best effort from freshman Krista Dooley, who had four kills in the fifth set, alone.
“That’s probably the best game Krista has played, and we can see how incredibly talented and athletic she is,” she said. “We’re just waiting for that all to come together where she is consistent. … She can be above almost any block that we come up against, because she’s tall and she’s long. As a freshman, getting it together, getting some of those kills and bouncing the ball off the floor – give her another year or two, and she’s going to be the one to be looking out for.”
For now, though, the focus is on program-wide steps forward and chasing a postseason berth in a deep 9-6A, which would be the Lady Panthers’ first since 2011.
“Our focus and what we’ve been going for is to always progress and get better every game,” Manderson said. “That’s got to be our main focus. We definitely want to focus on trying to get into the playoffs. We don’t expect to be No. 1 in the district, but we know that’s where, in the next year or two, we want to be. We want to be fighting for state.”
For continued coverage of the local sports scene, follow @TaylorRaglin on Twitter.