By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (August 8, 2016) — They are former district rivals, and have even squared off in tournament championship games in recent seasons.
Now, Dublin and HIco will meet in the 2016 season opener Tuesday with both teams fresh off district and bi-district titles and area-round appearances, Dublin in 3A and Hico in 2A.
The Lady Lions and Lady Tigers clash at the net beginning at 5 p.m. today, following a 4 p.m. sub-varsity game. There is no freshman contest.
Dublin returns its district blocker of the year in Whitney Weems, the team captain, and also has libero Kylee Bamber back, but is building around them with youth off its district champion JV and freshman teams. Hico, meanwhile, thrives off the return of several stalwarts, including outside hitters Kaylee Roach and Shelby Polk, setter Kaylee Moore and libero Emily Jackson, while Marissa Warren is charged with the task of replacing Ashlynn Underwood at middle blocker.
Because of the difference in experienced level, the two head coaches have different perspectives entering the season-opening match.
“We have great leadership and dedication and I’ve said so many times already that just personality-wise and the way they mesh together and work together so well, this could be the hardest working team I’ve ever had,” says Julia Plaster, fourth-year head coach at Hico. “They critique each other well, they feed off each other, it’s just a great group of girls with a lot of positive chemistry.”
That’s exactly what Ryan Lewis is looking to establish as she blends young and veteran talent.
“Other than (Weems and Bamber) we are young and looking to build confidence as we prepare for district,” said Lewis, the fifth-year leader of the Lady Lions, whose 2015 club came one point from winning the program’s first area title after an undefeated run through district. “We have to take it one step at a time and one game at a time so that we peak in district.”
Lewis said she could sense the nerves felt by her younger players in scrimmage play over the weekend.
“Friday at Glen Rose, we looked really nervous, but then Saturday at Brownwood we were a lot more relaxed and played closer to the level we are capable of,” she said. “Hopefully, we got most those nerves and jitters out with the scrimmages and (Tuesday) we can play at the level we need, too.”
That doesn’t mean Lewis is lowering her expectations, especially after going undefeated in district play at the varsity, JV and freshman levels last year.
“Expectations don’t graduate, and these girls have the ability to do the same things we have in the past and to continue to build on that,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t matter who we graduated, our expectations are the same and we have to take the same focus and goals to every drill of every practice and to every game that we play.”
Plaster and Hico were also undefeated district champs a year ago, and she has leaders in Roach and Polk she knows she can rely heavily on.
“The big thing about Kaylee is her personality and leadership skills. She stands out, obviously, when you see her hit the ball, but she’s also a big standout for the team because of who she is. We’re expecting big things from her and for her to go out with a bang,” Plaster said. “She was very strong in the scrimmage the other day, and I think she will have a great senior season.”
She can say the same for Polk.
“Shelby is our other big outside hitter and she’s swinging just as hard as Kaylee right now,” Plaster said. “She’s just as dedicated as Kaylee, and probably has the biggest heart on the team.
Both teams expect to be back in the post season and to make some noise when they get there.
But first, they deal with each other.
“Everyone will be nervous at first because it’s the first actual game,” Lewis said. “Hopefully the nerves will get worked out and we can kind of start heading in the right direction.”