By TONY EIERDAM
After setting a school record for the deepest run in the playoffs, the Mineral Wells Lady Rams volleyball team got back to work this spring to prepare for the upcoming 2013 season.
In 2012, the Lady Rams won the school’s first-ever playoff match and advanced to the area (second) round for the first time.
Although the attitude of the girls coming back for the 2013 season is obviously upbeat, head coach Taylor Eggleston has a major reconstruction job on her hands.
The Lady Rams will be solid on the back row as they return all-district libero Bethany Allen and setter Erin Burgeson. Eggleston will have to find another starter on the back row, but that is not the area that she is concerned with most at this point of the offseason.
Eggleston needs to replace the entire front row as all-district performers Sydney Shelstead, Niya Benavides, Kelsey Garland, Taylor Parkhill and Shay Douglas are lost to graduation. The front-row depth also took a hit as Emily Clingings, Hali King and Miranda Watkins also graduated from last year’s talented squad.
Eggleston said this off season may be the most important of her four years as head coach.
“Last year’s success is a huge motivating factor for the returning kids and the kids who are trying to make varsity for the first time,” she said. “They know the bar was raised and they have been working harder.
“They know more is attainable, and the next goal is to go even further in the playoffs. We have worked hard to figure out what areas we need the most work in.
“The reverse of that is that the girls have to realize that although last year was very good, this year they will be a different team. We will work differently, and we will emphasize defense and passing.”
Eggleston said the major changes in the varsity team will occur mainly due to lack of experience and height on the front row.
“The No. 1 difference in last year’s team to this year’s team is height,” she said. “We won’t be as tall as were last year.
“That is not an indication that we will drop off, it just means we have been working on different things compared to what we worked on last year.
“Every year is different, and I am approaching this year differently and am looking at our strengths and how we can use those strengths to be successful.”
Eggleston said the front-row candidates – knowing three starting positions are wide open - have increased their level of play and that the off season workouts have resembled in-season practices with the urgency to fill the front-row positions.
“The front row players are motivated, and they know what is at stake,” Eggleston said. “You can see the drive in all of the girls.
“They know it is more about being on varsity, it is starting on varsity, and the competition is wide open, no matter what their age.”
Eggleston said Allen will remain the libero and Burgeson will be the No. 1 setter as MWHS loses setter Cassidee McCluskey to graduation.
Eggleston toyed with the idea of Allen as a setter, but with Burgeson a solid, experienced returning setter, the coach has decided to keep Allen at libero so she can have her on the floor for the entire match.
“BB (Allen) will stay at libero,” Eggleston said. “Erin is a returning setter, and Riley Bullock is also a strong setter and doing a great job.
“But last year BB established herself at libero, and she is comfortable there. She is an outstanding back-row player, and libero is a strength on our team. BB really understands the game.”
Eggleston pointed to defense as one of the areas she feels the squad has improved on in the off season.
“These girls are picking up everything off the floor,” she said. “They don’t want any balls touching the floor. They are turning into a scrappy defensive team, and they have been priding themselves on defense, which is a good thing.
“Defensively, we are getting there, and I am really hoping that will be a strength for us next season.”
With the personnel changes, Eggleston has been working on a different style of play with her team, a team in 2013 that will rely on quickness and athleticism rather than height.
“This team won’t be what we have been used to seeing – hard hit, hard hit, hard hit,” she said. “This group will mix it up, and it will have to do that in order to be successful.
“We will want to keep the ball in play, wear the other team down and force our opponent to make mistakes. That is what we are going to have to do.
“The good thing about this group is that they are willing to do that. They are hitting the ground and willing to sacrifice their bodies. Even our front row players are playing excellent defense.”
The first volleyball practice of 2013 will be at 6 a.m. Monday, Aug. 5. The season opener will be Tuesday, Aug. 13, at home against Millsap.