The run to 37 wins and a regional tournament one season ago was the near-storybook ending to a four-year journey for nine Lady Hawk alumni. Their departure also leaves this year's squad a little short in the "experience" column.
But, thanks to the young talent on the roster it will not be a "back to square one" kind of season, said Red Oak head coach Hope Porter. There are a few holes to fill, certainly, but she expects for the younger group to "take the bull by the horns and take off running."
"That is all I can hope for. I think they have the potential to do it because potentially everything is there," continued Poter ahead of the first match of the 2018 season. "We just have to get our minds right and commitment right and see how it goes. We are definitely not starting over at ground zero like we did four years ago but there are holes to fill and a short time to do it in.”
There has been no slow roll into the season, either. The Lady Hawks began the march toward a third-consecutive postseason berth Monday and, after a three-day Denton Volleyball Classic, have 11 games, seven wins and a second-place tournament finish under their belts.
The Lady Hawks fell in the championship match of the tournament Saturday afternoon to Lubbock Cooper, 21-25, 22-25. Hailey Hunt and Katelyn Malone were named to the all-tournament team.
It is also Hunt, a 2017 second-team All-District 10-5A middle blocker, that Porter said will need to step up this season and help lead the relatively young Lady Hawk program. The junior will also transition back to the outside this season, where she terminated 281 balls last season (.288 hitting percentage).
“She is going to have a lot of pressure on her shoulders, I guess you could say, and she is going to have to carry a lot of the weight," Porter explained. "She does play well above the net, and it wasn’t really a fair year for her last year because I had to transfer her from the outside to the middle and she played most of her year from blocking middle. I am really kind of excited to see how it goes with her playing on the outside.”
Joining Hunt as key returners from last year's team are Malone, Emily Smith, and Kendra McRuffin.
Malone finished last season as an all-district honorable mention with 122 kills, 28 blocks and 106 digs in 116 sets.
Smith averaged 4.2 assists per set on her way to an All-District 10-5A honorable mention. Her 547 assists on the season were good enough for fifth on the district leaderboard. She also added 186 digs, 252 service points and 25 aces.
McRuffin had 45 kills and 57 blocks in 54 sets played as a junior.
Emily Holombek, who is a Red Oak graduate and played volleyball and basketball for the Lady Hawks, is the new junior varsity coach.
“She actually came into high school going straight basketball, and we convinced her as a freshman to try out for volleyball," Porter recalled.
Holombek then played volleyball collegiately at Navarro College and, after two years, played her junior and senior seasons at Eastern Oklahoma in Ada, Oklahoma. She then played one year of college basketball after an ACL tear.
Following her playing career, Holombek served as the head volleyball coach at the University of Dallas and as an assistant basketball coach at Eastern Oklahoma. This will be her first stint in a public school.
“She is coming in with a wealth of experience, and I am excited to have her because she is young and I don’t have to fall down on the floor and demonstrate stuff anymore. So that is pretty exciting for me,” Porter laughed. “She is bringing an element of youth to the program that we don’t really have right now, and that is pretty exciting for me. She will also coach freshman basketball, as well so it will help out both groups.”
Following the bi-annual UIL realignment, the Lady Hawks have jumped from the ever-daunting District 10-5A into a much more favorable District 14-5A.
Corsicana, Waco University, Cleburne, Joshua, Ennis, and Midlothian join Red Oak in the new district that begins play Sept. 7.
“Not to say anything negative about the schools that we are facing, but it is not stacked like we have seen the last five or six years," Porter said. "You still can’t take a night off. To be honest, the majority of this district got kicked out of the playoffs by our district, which gives me a little bit of comfort to know that if that fourth-place team could beat them, then we can hang around even in a down year.”
Red Oak returns to action at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 13 on the road against rival Waxahachie. The Lady Hawks are then back home for a 6:30 p.m. match Tuesday against Grapevine.
"I am anxious to see what is going to happen and who is going to do what they need to do," Porter said. "Sometimes having all of those holes or having to groom people who don’t know how to play is just as exciting as when you know you have experience coming back.”
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith