Rouse volleyball coach Jacob Thompson remembers the first time Grayson Schirpik stepped onto the court for the Raiders. A transcendent high school player now about to begin her freshman season at TCU, Schirpik showed the skills and athleticism needed to step into Rouse’s starting rotation in her first high school season.
But even Schirpik, who graduated this past spring as Rouse’s all-time leader in kills and aces, needed time to adapt to varsity play. Thompson admits that his young star had some struggles in that summer of 2016. He also says she learned enough lessons in the competitive cauldron of tournament play to become a key contributor for a team that won 40 matches and reached the regional finals.
“All of a sudden, she became human,” said Thompson, who has guided the Raiders to four consecutive Class 5A regional tournaments. “And we’ve had a lot of kids like that. There’s just a difference between playing 17- and 18-year-olds and playing against 14-year-olds. Tournament play gets you up to game speed at the varsity level, especially for the younger players.”
Overcoming the absence of that tournament experience is just one of the challenges for Thompson and other volleyball coaches in class 5A and 6A programs following the UIL’s recent revised fall schedule. The UIL eliminated tournaments in both volleyball and basketball in order to limit the possible spread of the coronavirus pandemic. That includes regional tournaments in the playoffs.
“Team chemistry really grows in those first few weeks,” Lake Travis coach Brandace Boren said. “And as a coach, you get to iron out the lineup and see who rises to the occasion in pressure situations.”
Most teams compete in three summer tournaments, which can mean anywhere from a dozen to more than 20 matches. Last season alone, Rouse played 20 of its 44 matches in three pre-district tournaments, including eight matches in Rouse’s annual Volleypalooza tournament.
“On the coaching end, tournaments are a huge part of identifying the strongest offensive and defensive systems, receive patterns and rotations for your team, but more importantly, instilling that competitive mentality in your team before it really counts in district,” said Connally coach Meghan Nichols, who has led the Cougars to back-to-back playoff appearances in Class 5A. “For the team, it is such an important time for bonding and creating chemistry.”
While volleyball teams in classes 4A and smaller can begin practice Monday and start matches on a regular schedule in the second week of August, teams in 5A and 6A must wait to begin practice until Sept. 7 and cannot hold matches until Sept. 14. District competition for 5A and 6A must be completed by Nov. 17 with the state tournament scheduled for Dec. 11-12.
The UIL’s recent announcement concerning fall sports means that coaches in 5A and 6A are getting creative when it comes to scheduling and practices leading up to the start of the season in mid-September.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we lost tournaments, especially this year,” Thompson said. “I’m OK with it. When we get into the gym, we as coaches will have to have a different mindset in order to get them (the players) ready. If anything else changes, we will roll with the punches as they come.”
Thompson is part of a group text among area coaches that has helped create some intriguing non-district matches between Sept. 14 and the start of district play. For example, Lake Travis — which finished atop District 25-6A a year ago — will host powerhouse Vandegrift in its home opener on Sept. 19 and then faces Rouse on Sept. 25. The Cavs also will face two other playoff hopefuls in Westwood and Cedar Park in a doubleheader Sept. 22.
The Cavs’ home opener will be a Saturday matinee matchup. Expect more match days on the weekend as coaches schedule as many games as possible before the start of district play.
“Of course it's disappointing to lose that preparation time before district play begins, but I'll take what we can get at this point,” Nichols said. “Honestly, I'm just grateful we get to have a season for our girls. Unfortunately, soccer, softball, baseball and tennis programs were cut short last year, so I'm thankful my girls, especially our seniors, will get to finish what they started in a healthy and safe environment.”
Boren agreed, saying her players “were so excited and so happy when we heard the news” about the UIL’s decision to have fall sports.
“I mean, it was so hard in the spring with the pandemic,” she said. “I would get depressed and have to eat a pint of ice cream. Now, I just can’t wait to get things started.”