By Pat Turner
That led to highly-competitive matches and plenty of memorable accomplishments, such as district championships, long playoff runs and a trip to the Class 6A State Volleyball Tournament.
Because of the success, some of those players reaped special awards as members of the Helotes Echo Volleyball squad.
Leading the crew was Clark’s Kara McGhee, who was named Most Valuable Player while leading the Cougars to the District 28-6A championship and a spot in the Region IV finals. Joining the Baylor signee were teammates Ashley Hu (setter), libero Madison Cuellar and hitter Grace Gibson.
O’Connor and Brandeis had their honors as well.
Yamilet Garcia of O’Connor was named Coach of the Year after guiding her team to its second straight state tournament appearance. O’Connor players selected to the squad included hitter Bryshanna Brown and setter Marina De La Rosa.
Brandeis, which reached the regional quarterfinals, was represented by Newcomer of the Year Jalyn Gibson and hitter Maya Smalls.
Hitter Camryn Anderson landed on the squad after leading Warren to 28-6A’s fourth playoff spot.
Harlan, winners of the District 28-5A championship during its first season of varsity competition, placed hitter Ayana Jackson and setter Jevani Hanspard on the team. Rounding out the squad were Brennan’s Kayla Lofland (hitter) and libero Alex Torres and Taft’s Jamiryana Hall.
Contributions came from a variety of players, including Brown, who delivered 335 kills, blocked 11 shots with 638 digs, and De La Rosa, who guided the offense with 675 assists. She was also valuable on defense with 386 digs.
O’Connor and Brandeis tied for second place, but the Panthers went as the third seed after the Broncos won the coin flip.
O’Connor showed its strength in the playoffs, sweeping Reagan and Clemens, before registering a 3-1 win over Brandeis in the regional quarterfinals.
At the Region IV Tournament, the Panthers started with a 3-1 win over McAllen Memorial and pulled out a dramatic comeback for a 3-2 victory over Clark to earn their second state tournament trip.
O’Connor (41-12) fell in the semifinals to Lewisville Flower Mound, which went on to win the state tournament.
“It was exciting,” De La Rosa said. “It was pretty cool going to state our junior year for the first time. And then going our senior year was pretty crazy. Coach Garcia really helped us grow. She prepared us during the offseason and practice by making us do different things.”
Clark, finishing 38-4, had a banner season. The Cougars lost their season opener to New Braunfels but got on a roll and sprinted to the 28-6A championship with an 18-0 record.
It was a pleasant surprise for Clark, considering the Cougars had several new faces on the squad. Chemistry developed, and winning results followed.
McGhee, a four-year starter was a big reason for the success with her experience, leadership and skills, which included 607 kills, 237 blocks and 116 digs.
“It was an exciting career,” McGhee said. “This year was really special because of the team chemistry. We have always had it, but it was just different this year. This year, I wanted to be mentally tougher. I think that helped me. I wanted to be able to lift my team up every chance I could.”
McGhee’s supporting cast was solid as well, including Hu (1,062 assists, 244 digs), Gibson (325 kills, 81 blocks, 75 digs) and Cuellar, who led the defense with 850 digs.
“We came in this year on focusing on each other and playing the game,” Hu said. “It was amazing to be part of a team like this. The hitters were great and so understanding. They were really awesome.”
With a solid part of the nucleus returning, the Cougars are looking to use the recent season as a building block.
“We’re really excited,” said Gibson, one of Clark’s returners. “We have good players coming back. We have the chemistry. This season will help us. We saw how everything clicked.”
Brandeis (33-12) had one of the top one-two punches in 28-6A with the senior Smalls and newcomer Gibson.
Smalls, who signed with St. Edward’s, was a force with 443 kills and 82 blocks. She was also helpful in foiling opponents’ scoring attempts with 632 digs.
“The chemistry this year was good right off the bat,” Smalls said. “We had a lot of players helping. I tried to be consistent. I knew this was my senior year and I wanted to make plays. One of the first things I worked on was how to react after the play happens and how you overcome it.”
Although Gibson was making her varsity debut, it didn’t take long for the freshman to fit in nicely. Throughout district play, Gibson looked like a player who had been there before, pounding out 426 kills.
“My teammates helped me so much,” Gibson said. “I started feeling comfortable after the first two games. I started getting more confidence.”
Sparked by Anderson’s 341 kills, 15 blocks and 195 digs, the Warriors reached the post-season, before losing to Churchill in the opening round.
“This was a special year, because we finally made the playoffs,” said Anderson, who will be playing college volleyball at Bicknell. “I wanted to do well, because this was my senior year. I was really happy with my hitting. I felt it was more consistent.”
Brennan came up short of the playoffs, but the Bears were in the hunt to the end.
Lofland provided consistency on the offensive end, totaling 358 kills and 11 blocks, while contributing defensively with 617 digs.
Much of Brennan’s defensive highlights came from Torres, who recorded 722 digs. The senior, who is heading to A&M-Corpus Christi to play softball, was also an efficient passer with 85 assists.
Hall had an impressive track season as a freshman this past spring, and carried it over to volleyball with pleasing results, registering 469 kills, 22 blocks and 241 digs for Taft.
“I was excited about this year,” Hall said. “I haven’t played volleyball that long, but I love it. I wanted to have a good year and help my team. I felt like I improved. I want to keep working to get better.”
Harlan (30-13) made a big first impression during its inaugural varsity season by zipping to the 28-6A title with a 16-0 mark and advancing do the third round of the playoffs before falling to Boerne Champion.
Throughout the run, steady play came from Jackson, who finished with 369 kills, 94 blocks and 47 digs and Hanspard, who dished off 432 assists, while also coming up with 197 digs.
“It was just a really great year,” Jackson said. “We had great team chemistry in a short period of time. We spent a lot of time bonding. We made sure we were always together.
“I tried to stay humble and be mindful of everything we were doing. I tried to be consistent and do everything to help my team.”
Player of the Year: Kara McGhee, Clark
Newcomer of the Year: Jalyn Gibson, Brandeis
Coach of the Year: Yamilet Garcia
The Team also includes:
Camryn Anderson, Warren
Ayana Jackson, Harlan
Kayla Lofland, Brennan
Maya Smalls, Brandeis
Bryshanna Brown, O’Connor
Grace Gibson, Clark
Jamiryana Hall, Taft
Ashley Hu, Clark
Marina De La Rosa, O’Connor
Jevani Hanspard, Harlan
Alex Torres, Brennan
Madison Cuellar, Clark