Houston volleyball coach Debbie James is sending the youngest team of her tenure against the toughest schedule the Lady Tigers have ever played.
The combination may lead to less victories, but James is confident the challenge will ultimately make her team better.
“Some kids are tough enough to take it and some aren’t. I think this group is mentally tough enough that they won’t get down,” said James, who earned her 300th career victory last season. “They know it’s going to help in the long run.”
The Houston roster features just two seniors, and returning starter Kortney Huffman is battling a nagging knee injury. That leaves a starting lineup of one junior and five sophomores.
The Lady Tigers will be led by junior middle hitter Amber Honig, who last year earned all-region honors in her first year as a starter. She was among the team leaders with 102 kills, 55 blocks and 27 aces.
Flanking Honig in the starting lineup are outside hitters Erica Keeney, Samantha Jones and Kaitlyn Kell. Keeney, who started as a freshman, is a powerful hitter and blocker who James said is one of the best young players she has coached.
Sarah Pierce, who missed part of the summer with an injury, returns at setter. She’ll share duties with Tory Burgess.
Senior Megan Graeff, Lainey Casper and Courtney Sillyman provide depth at outside hitter. Sillyman is also a backup setter.
Junior Jessica Herndon may miss the beginning of the season with a inflamed tissue in her knee, which led to Kell’s promotion from the junior varsity. Huffman should play, but may not start.
“This should be one of the best blocking teams we’ve had,” James said. “As far as weaknesses, we could be stronger at serve-receive.”
After opening the season Tuesday at rival Licking, the Lady Tigers travel to Cuba before playing in the Branson Tournament – the first of three difficult tournaments.
The Lady Tigers will participate for the first time this season in the Springfield Classic, which features Kickapoo, Glendale, Parkview and Borgia.
“It’s the toughest tournament we’ve ever been in,” James said.
Just a week later, Houston will be part of a field that annually includes Eureka, Hickman, Helias and West Plains at the Rolla Tournament.
Not only are there challenging tournaments ahead, Houston will play most of its first matches on the road. Five of the team’s first six matches and two tournaments are away from home.
James said the Lady Tigers, who went 13-16-3 and lost to Liberty in the district championship match last year, may not have an impressive record at the end of the season. But she hopes the stiff competition will prepare them for a postseason run.
“Don’t let the record be an indicator of this team,” James said. “We play an awfully strong schedule.”