The Houston varsity volleyball team went through several camps and leagues this summer without winning a match. It got to the point that coach Debbie James wondered if her Lady Tigers would win at all.
But as the team gelled together and players began accepting their bigger roles, the wins came.
“By the end of the summer, we were playing right with teams like (Columbia) Hickman and Helias,” James said. “I think this team will end up being a lot stronger this year than I thought they would be.”
The 2007 campaign will be much different than 2006, when the senior-laden Lady Tigers breezed through the competition with a 29-4-4 record as they finished one victory shy of the final four. Gone are five seniors, led by all-stater Viki Castleman and sisters Trezha and Lexie Malam.
Left behind are just two seniors and two starters to carry the winning tradition James has established during her tenure at Houston. Seven of the team’s 10 players are sophomores or freshmen.
“This is a rebuilding year for us,” James said. “Anytime you’ve got over three-fourths of our team freshmen and sophomores, it’s a rebuilding year. But a rebuilding year doesn’t mean you can’t win some big matches and go on to state, but we’ll really have to work.”
The Lady Tigers won’t have a marquee hitter like Castleman, who led Houston in all major offensive categories. But James believes Houston will be able to rely on multiple players to make up the difference.
Junior Kortney Huffman, who had 24 kills and 21 blocks last year, returns to the starting lineup as an outside hitter after playing a secondary role last year. She’s joined on the outside by freshman Erica Keeney. Sophomore Amber Honig and senior Kate Harper, who didn’t play last season, will anchor the middle.
“Our strength will be balance,” James said. “Last year, the middle blocker always knew who we were going to set. This year, we’ll be using a variety of players.”
Setting duties will be shared by senior Janell Gentry, a returning starter, and sophomore Chelsey Williams. Together, they’ll be asked to fill the void of Lexie Malam, who graduated with the 10th most career assists in state history.
Gentry was a big contributor last year, finishing second on the team with 144 assists. She also had 32 aces – second on the team – and 32 kills.
“She’ll be the team leader,” James said of Gentry. “She keeps everybody focused. Her experience in setting really helps the team.”
Shelbi Moore, Jessi Hernson and Courtney Sillyman will play key defensive roles. Freshman Sarah Pierce rounds out the team as a setter.
James said each player understands their responsibility to play bigger roles this year.
“This summer they realized, ‘Uh oh, I’m not sitting and watching now, I have to be the one that steps in and does the work,” James said.
“They’re definitely improving. From the beginning to the end of the season you’re going to see a huge difference.”