Aug. 5—The key word for the Cleburne Lady Jackets as they enter the 2022 volleyball season is 'grit.'
Coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, the Lady Jackets return only one player with any tangible varsity experience for this season, which begins Tuesday in Forney.
Cleburne Coach Rachell Pope said she is excited to see what will be a young roster compete but also knows there will likely be some growing pains along the way, which is the case for any varsity team with minimal experience.
"I think sometimes you have to set little goals," Pope said. "Of course, the end goal is always to make the playoffs. It would be nice to make it again this season and see what we can do there. But we're not looking at the big picture like that. We want to just get better every day and go from there. The word for us this year is 'grit' and making sure we're giving it every thing we've got every time."
After the UIL placed Cleburne in a nine-team district following realignment, league play in District 8-5A starts earlier than usual. From the first day of tryouts to their district opener Aug. 23 vs. Mansfield Timberview, the Lady Jackets will have only three weeks to prepare for district action. And with such a young and inexperienced team, that's less than ideal.
"We start district so early so we don't have much time to prep in-game situations to be as ready as we'd like for that first district game," Pope said. "Sometimes when you have a young and inexperienced team playing in a short preseason, it makes it hard to get to where you need to be before you start district, so I think we'll still be growing when we're in district. But it's just about getting better every day.
"Our mentality this season is 'next ball.' In reality, our goal is to not make two errors in a row. If we have a bad pass, just bounce back and don't let it be two bad passes in a row. We can't miss two serves in a row. We're focusing on 'next play' being our mentality."
Early on, Pope said they'll be focusing on learning what their team strengths are while also trying to improve upon their weaknesses.
"We definitely understand that we have a lot of things to work on and grow from this season in a sense of learning how to play with one another, learning what our strengths are and learning what our weaknesses are to try to correct those weaknesses," she said. "For us early in the season, it will be trying to find the right lineup that has the best chemistry and who will be gritty and just finding who will go out there and compete for every ball.
"Obviously figuring out lineups and rotations and knowing who's best for what position will be great before district starts. But I hope these girls will challenge each other every day so that our lineup is hard to create. At the end of the day, that will make us a better team is if they push each other every day. Just compete with one another to make us better and go out there and be gritty."
In addition to having a lack of experience, the Lady Jackets will also be undersized compared to their opposition more often than not. To make up for the lack of size, Pope said they will have to be patient with their offense and relentless and gritty on defense.
"You have to be smart, know how to place the ball in certain areas, work around other teams' block and figure out a way that best works for your offense," Pope said. "We're going to have to do a lot of game planning based on each team we play, especially during district. Several of our girls just want to put it down every play and, while I like the aggressiveness, we don't always have the size to do that so you can't just swing into a block every time. Most of them played on the freshman team or JV team and they didn't really face many big blocks against the JV or freshmen teams we played last year. So they're trying to change their mindset with that. That's something that takes time.
"On defense, it's digging, digging, digging. It's the mindset of just getting the ball up. Even if it's not the most beautiful dig, just get the ball up and keep it in play. Keep the ball in play until the other team makes a mistake. We're going to have to be strategic in that."
Pope said two key factors in determining Cleburne's on-court success this season will be serving and serve-receive. If the Lady Jackets can be aggressive at the service line and find points via strong serving, it will be a huge aid to their offense. On the other side, Pope said they have to be strong in their serve-receive.
Senior Tru Collup will lead the way as the only returner with extended varsity experience.
"I really need consistency and mental toughness from Tru," Pope said. "I need her to step in and fill some of the production we graduated. She'll have to play a little bit of everything this year. She may have to play some reps at outside and may have to play some reps at middle and possibly play defense. She's our most knowledgeable, skilled player we have on the team. She's a great young lady and a great leader. She exemplifies what a Lady Jacket is: hard-working, good character and will do anything you ask her to do."
Senior Kaysen Lanciano is a varsity returner while juniors Alexis Staton and Mariela Garcia split time on JV and varsity a year ago.
"Mariela has really been playing well lately," Pope said. "Mariela is extremely smart with the ball. If we can get her reaction a little bit faster as a middle blocker, I think she's going to be a pivotal part of our offense. I think she's going to have a really good season. If Kaysen comes in and plays with confidence, I think she'll also have a very good season and will help us on defensive side of the ball. Lexi is a true utility player. She's just a competitor. She's going to give you every ounce of effort at any position you put her in. She will go anywhere you ask her to go. She's not going to complain about it and she's not a selfish player. She's very gritty. She helps set the example for our younger kids. She practices hard and she plays hard."
Newcomers to the varsity level that will be in contention for key roles include juniors Gigi Balderson, Ellie Jimenez, Kamree Kirkpatrick, Ashley Rodriguez, Jordan Stevens and Julia Whitehead, along with sophomores Kodi Bourg and Isabel Felkins.
Making a third consecutive playoff appearance even tougher for Cleburne this year is its new district, comprised of Arlington Seguin, Burleson, Burleson Centennial, Joshua, Mansfield Summit, Mansfield Timberview, Midlothian and Midlothian Heritage.
"I think our new district is going to be quite competitive," Pope said. "It is going to be a tough district because there's some really talented teams. I like competition so I am really excited about our girls getting to compete against new teams and see what we're able to accomplish this season. Our goal is to grow from game to game and just try to be better every day. Since it is going to be a highly competitive district, one of the things for our team is to try to stay positive, even if we get in game situations where we're struggling, we'll have to find ways to maintain a positive mindset and focus on the things we do really well. I'm ready to see what they can do and just compete every game."
Cleburne opens its season at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at Forney. The Lady Jackets' first home game is Aug. 16 vs. L.D. Bell.