It was during her freshman year that Cinco Ranch senior Sophie Atkinson was dealt an awakening of sorts.
A metatarsal fracture limited Atkinson to two cross country meets during that year. Then she suffered a stress fracture to another metatarsal on the same foot that wiped out her track season.
But after eventually coming to terms with the devastation of two setbacks within months of each other, Atkinson found a wat to move forward. She leaned on her faith. Her focus turned to becoming a better teammate. And, most importantly, she realized there was a lot more to her life than running.
A serve was hit and everything seemed normal again, almost as if time froze and the tragic pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was forgotten, at least for a couple of hours.
Just days after Katy ISD cross country teams initiated their respective 2020 seasons, and mere minutes after team tennis programs began district play, volleyball teams followed suit on Tuesday afternoon, albeit six weeks later than usual. Wearing masks and exchanging high-fives for elbow taps, Katy High volleyball players and coaches showed off a genuine enthusiasm and appreciation, even more so than usual, during their season-opener at home against Stratford.
The Tigers swept the Spartans in dominant fashion, 25-11, 25-13, 25-16.
As the youngest daughter, Casey Batenhorst felt the pressure to live up to the volleyball greatness of her two older sisters.
Dani Batenhorst, the oldest, is a redshirt sophomore outside hitter at Gonzaga University. Ally, the middle sister, is a senior outside hitter for Seven Lakes and a Nebraska verbal commit. So, Casey, a junior setter for Seven Lakes, not only felt the need to be successful like her sisters, she wanted it for herself as well.
“It was difficult,” said Casey, 16. “I felt since they were really good, then I needed to be, too, to finish the family tradition, in a sense. It was stressful, but I took it well. I worked really hard, because I knew I wanted to be a part of that and go to a school for volleyball like them.”
Batenhorst can relax easier these days after verbally committing to play volleyball at SMU on Sept. 10. Batenhorst averaged 9.2 assists per set in her first full season as the starting setter for the Spartans last season to go with a 34.4 kill percentage.
Playing a different position than her older sisters allowed Batenhorst to set her own path.
“Definitely, because no one could compare me to them,” Batenhorst said. “As a setter, and them two both being outsides, was great for me. People saw me as my own player.”
Batenhorst chose SMU mostly because of its proximity to home, among other key reasons.
Some of her friends are also going to college around the area. She also noted the school’s rigorous academics and the “amazing” volleyball program and its coaches.
“It just checked off everything I wanted in a school,” said Batenhorst, who plans to study international business.
The Batenhorst sisters were seemingly born to play volleyball. They are tall, long and athletic. Dani stands 6-foot-1, Ally 6-4, and Casey 6-1.
Growing up, Batenhorst figured she’d be an outside hitter like her sisters. She never expected to be a setter.
“I was surprised by that, too,” Batenhorst said. “When I was little, I thought setting was fun, but I never really thought much else about it.”
But when Batenhorst was playing club volleyball at 12 years old, her coach needed a setter, so she set some balls for him.
“I don’t know if (the balls) were good or not, but he made me a setter and I just stuck with that my entire career,” she said.
Now she can’t imagine playing any other position on the floor.
“I love everything about it,” Batenhorst said. “People call it the quarterback of the team and it’s really interesting. You study the other side of the court, see what the matchups are, know who’s on that game, and you have to be focused every single play. I think it’s fun to run an offense and be in control of the ball, run different plays and see the holes. The dynamic is super fun.”
Batenhorst has only been setting for five years, so she’s still growing into the role. She said she’s improved the most at knowing where middle blockers are during any given set and determining the height of the balls to place for her hitters. She’s better at running a faster offense.
“I used to set a pretty high ball,” Batenhorst said, laughing.
She acknowledges there is still room to improve. Batenhorst wants to get better deciphering each hitter and making it easier for them to attack off her sets. She obsesses over delivering the perfect ball, per each hitter’s wants and standards.
She wants to work on picking up tips more as well as executing deep dumps, which is hitting balls from the front row, but deeper on the court.
This 2020 season will be Batenhorst’s last playing with Ally, something she does not take for granted.
“Having a sister on the team, especially me as a setter and her being an outside (hitter), there needs to be a lot of communication because the hitter dictates what they want,” Batenhorst said. “Since we’re family, it’s a lot easier for her to tell me. We just have that connection to where, no matter what, she won’t get mad and I won’t get mad. It just works well. Throughout the years, she hasn’t had to tell me as much because I’ve learned her as a player. I absolutely love playing with her. Setting her and seeing her get a kill is the best thing for me.”
Setting Ally has made Batenhorst a better player.
“She needs a faster ball, but it can’t be low because she’s so tall,” Batenhorst said. “So, I have to set it almost past the pin so she can cut it off at a certain point. It’s a farther ball, but higher. She works well with that, and she’s really good with 3s (balls that are more inside; a quicker, faster ball so the hitter can hit to the line and have more options), and 2s (balls to the outside, far to the pin), too, which I feel are underrated because it’s harder to block a 2. I love when she calls that, and I can set it lower and faster and she comes in super quick.”
Batenhorst credits both high school volleyball and club volleyball for her success.
Under revered coach Amy Cataline at Seven Lakes, Batenhorst plays six rotations and the front row as well as the back row, something that is appealing to college coaches when they look for setters. In club ball, though she mostly only plays from the back row, the exposure is significant, as college coaches are more likely to attend those showcases than high school games.
“Coach Cataline is an amazing coach and was a setter herself, so she really helps me through that aspect,” Batenhorst said. “Being able to play six rotations and set from the front row, I think that will help me for college. A lot of colleges want setters that play (that way), so I’ve been able to learn blocking and everything else. For club ball, the coaches are great, and they’re all so invested in us with great connections to colleges.”
The Batenhorst sisters started their athletic careers playing basketball up until middle school. They started playing with the Katy Volleyball Academy late during their elementary years.
Dani was a late bloomer to the club volleyball scene, starting her freshman year. Ally started club volleyball during the fifth grade, Casey during the sixth grade.
“We all love the team aspect of volleyball,” Batenhorst said. “It’s different than any other sport, in my opinion. You’re so much closer and there’s such like a family aspect to it. The game is fast-paced, which is super fun, and there are so many techniques and dynamics to the sport that you can always learn more. There’s never a dull moment with volleyball.”
Jordan High freshman Addison Sutton was nervous going into her first varsity cross country meet Saturday morning. Scared, even.
And still, Sutton came away victorious at the Pearland Dawson Early Bird meet.
Sutton ran a time of 12-minutes, 39-seconds to win the two-mile race and help the Warriors to a first-place team finish in the program’s first varsity competition. The Warriors, a Class 5A program, scored 27 points, followed by Clear Creek (40), Ridge Point (64) and North Shore (102).
“I was scared, but I was thinking really positive thoughts,” Sutton said. “I knew whatever I put into my head, that’s how I would do during the race. If I had a positive mindset, I knew I’d have a positive outcome. I know my body will do what my mind believes, so if I believe I can do it, I know I can push through.”
The last year has been quite a ride for Cinco Ranch senior runner Heidi Nielson.
A femur injury sidelined her high school cross country season after an exhausting summer representing Team USA at the Pan Am U20 Championships. Then the novel coronavirus COVID-19 abruptly shortened her track season in mid-March. The global pandemic also hindered Nielson’s recruiting, as she was unable to make visits to colleges or compete in significant events.
“It really sucked,” Nielson said. “The cross country season, I get hurt, and it was like, ‘Welp, there it goes.’ I was still hyped, I was really ready for the track season, and then everything gets shut down. I was so sad. Even now, I’m still, like, ugh.”
Still, it all worked out. A star distance runner since her eye-opening freshman season for the Cougars, Nielson verbally committed to continue her athletic career at Arkansas in an Instagram pledge on Sept. 9.
At barely 20 years old, Katie Becker is no stranger to life-altering adversity.
During her freshman season at the University of Texas-San Antonio in 2018, Becker was forced to medically retire from playing soccer seven games into her collegiate career. After having four concussions as a first-team all-district standout at Cinco Ranch High, she had another during a match against Rice in Houston on Sept. 23, 2018. Doctors and coaches determined that another concussion could lead to brain damage.
And while it was difficult to give up her first true love—Becker began playing soccer when she was five years old, helped Cinco Ranch to two state tournament appearances in high school and earned a scholarship to compete at the NCAA Division I level —it was nothing compared to what she faced a little more than two years later.