RED OAK — Before the first serve of the 2017 season, Red Oak head volleyball coach Hope Porter said her goal was to get the Lady Hawks off to a faster start than one year ago. A lofty goal for a team that entered district play with a 21-6 record and on a 12-match win streak in 2016.
Yet, they did it.
The Lady Hawks enter the "second season," or the District 10-5A portion of the schedule, with a 22-3 record and 14-match win streak. Red Oak has not lost a match since Aug. 17 against Frisco Wakeland. The senior-laden Lady Hawks have also dropped just three sets over their last nine matches — all three coming last week.
Following a five-set win at home over a scrappy North Crowley group on Aug. 29, Porter told her team that the Lady Panthers were a lot like a Mansfield Summit or Timberview, in that all three are uber athletic.
She explained that if the Lady Hawks allow any team with the athleticism of either of the three to hang around in a match, they could easily find themselves down in sets — or with a loss. Teams with the ability to consistently play above the net thrive on any opponent who attempts to defend while out of position.
A spot the Lady Hawks found themselves in much too frequently during an "off week" last week.
"No matter what is on the other side of the net, whether it is a team that is not very good or a team that has God given athleticism or a team that has a lot of volleyball knowledge, no matter what is on the other side of the court you cannot let them out work you," said Porter following the match. "Today, we got out worked. North Crowley just wanted it a little more than our home side did. We got out worked.
"Come district, if we get out worked, we are going to lose. I am hoping it is some kind of a wake-up call for us because this was a team that they handled pretty easily about three days ago and then they came in here tonight and allowed North Crowley to outwork them. They outworked us. And that is something we have to fix."
The Lady Hawks were, and will remain without for at least the first match of the district schedule, their starting middle blocker and last year's 10-5A blocks leader, Serena Patterson. The senior, who has 173 kills and 80 blocks on the year, was injured during pregame warmups in the Arlington Invitational tournament. Patterson is expected back next week.
"That was a big blow and we are about to put some pressure on some kids who have never had any pressure on them before," said Porter last week. "They are going to have to step up because we don't have any options. They are probably going to get tired of me being on their back, and they are probably going to get tired of me riding them but, unless they step up and play, we won't play very good."
Porter added, "The girls who have to step up have the ability to do it, we have just got to get them the confidence."
One of those who has stepped up to the challenge during Patterson's absence is sophomore Hailey Hunt. The 5-foot-9 middle blocker has accounted for 35 kills and 36 blocks over the last four matches.
With a new presence in the middle, combined with, as Porter put it, the rest of the Lady Hawks "rallying around" in support or whoever is tasked with playing there, Red Oak picked up a pair of straight-set wins.
Last Friday, the Lady Hawks defeated Trimble Tech (25-11, 25-19, 25-17) behind 10 kills apiece from Hunt and Katie Hess and 20 assists by Emily North. The roll continued Tuesday with a three-set win at home against Lewisville (25-17, 25-15, 25-16). Hess led with 12 kills, while Kennedy Wiley added eight. Libero Kylie Bryan also led the Lady Hawks with 23 digs from the back row, and North and Emily Smith accounted for 24 and 12 assists, respectively.
The all-around-team production had Porter in much higher spirits heading into the District 10-5A opener Friday against Midlothian.
"We definitely did some things better," said Porter on the court after Tuesday's win. "With Friday being our district opener we needed to be playing at a different level than we were last week."
Porter added that she told the Lady Hawks they would chalk the last couple of matches up to being a "bad week" and that it is better to have one of those sooner rather than later in the season.
As if they needed further proof of their higher-ceiling capabilities this season opposed to last, Porter agreed that her team's ability to continually find ways to win — even when not playing their best — is a true testament to their talent level.
"That is where we have struggled over the last two or three years — when we weren't playing our best we couldn't find ways to finish it out and win," Porter explained. "The group this year has, a couple of times, found those ways when they weren't necessarily playing their best. They found something that was working and fed off of that and found a way to win the match."
The Lady Hawks return to the court Friday, Sept. 8 on the road against Midlothian. Red Oak and Midlothian split the season series in 2016 with each team winning at home. However, Red Oak has already swept the Ellis County rival once this season with a two-set win in the Northwest ISD Invitational on Aug. 18.
"We are moving in the direction we want to be in, but we are literally taking it one match at a time. We are not trying, whatsoever, to look ahead to the next match. I think keeping their mindset that way, somewhat, has helped on the court because they aren't worried about the what if's or what is down the road. We just have to take care of business today."