BY DENNIS SILVA II | DENSILVA2@GMAIL.COM
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.
“We definitely aren’t taking any match for granted,” said senior outside hitter Perris Key, who had 10 kills. “We know in a split second it can be taken away. Right now, we’re grateful that we’re just even playing.”
Masks were required at Katy High, by spectators, players and coaches. Prior to the game and in between every set, a public address announcement reminded those in attendance to wear their face coverings, wash their hands and maintain a social distance of six feet from the next person.
The teams did not alternate sides of the court and switch benches between sets, as is custom. They did not shake hands before or after the game, opting for waves and shouts of encouragement.
The Tigers often celebrate Senior Night and Parent Night during the same game, but never in a season opener, as they did Tuesday.
“Usually we do that in district (play), but with the uncertainty, we didn’t want to risk not having that opportunity,” coach Karen Paxton said.
Paxton recently enforced her girls to wear masks at all time, during practices and games. Every Tiger player and coach wore a mask on the court.
“Obviously, it takes some getting used to,” Paxton said. “But we understand we have an opportunity to protect the season versus facing the possibility of having an entire team out if something were to happen. It’s second nature at this point.”
You’ll hear no argument from the players.
“We didn’t want to risk our season ending,” senior defensive specialist/libero Hannah Hoover said. “We’ll play in a mask any day than having to sit out.”
“It’s not that bad,” added junior setter/right side hitter Maddie Waak. “It’s kind of different, but at the same time it’s fun. If that’s what it takes to play, we have to. I’m just glad we get to play at all and as a team.”
On the floor, the Tigers picked up right where they left off last season. Ten players return from last year’s regional semifinalist team that went 33-15.
Key, a Texas-Rio Grande Valley commit, was electric. A jumping jack dynamo despite standing 5-foot-8, her kills wowed the Stratford crowd. She had five in the first set to get Katy off to a strong start.
Key credited the team’s vertical training during the offseason for her athletic feats. She also noted that the last couple of practices, the Tigers worked on shot selection and when and where to swing.
“Perris is one of those utility players who does whatever I ask her to do,” Paxton said. “She’s extremely talented, but she also has fun. She doesn’t let a mistake get to her. Swinging on the right side, she’s going to face a double-block most of the time this season, so it forces her to elevate her game. Because she can play in different spots, we can run her in the middle, on a slide, on the right side … it keeps the defense guessing.”
Waak, an LSU commit, led Katy with 14 kills. Paxton said Waak is playing with a joy as she is able to hit and attack as a Tiger opposed to primarily running the offense as a setter during club volleyball.
“We played so well together,” Waak said. “We didn’t make many errors. We played consistent and it was comfortable to be on the floor, even for the first game.”
The Tigers usually have preseason games to get ready for the season, but not this year. They only had scrimmages because of COVID-19’s influence on the start of the fall sports season. But it didn’t seem like the lack of a preseason made any difference.
A veteran club with seven seniors, Katy has a no-nonsense approach to it. There is plenty of talent, and even more significant, plenty of depth. It wasn’t just Key and Waak that starred.
Junior middle blocker Jordan Gamble was outstanding at the net with seven blocks and three kills.
“She has taken over that position,” Paxton said. “She’s been awesome.”
The two middle blockers playing opposite Gamble, seniors Lacie McCaffrey and Reghan Jones, made timely plays.
McCaffrey and Jones each had rocky junior seasons because of injuries.
“They’re both determined and bring a different strength to that position,” Paxton said. “They’re playing lights out.”
Junior setter Kailey Wyckoff has stepped in admirably in place of graduated veteran Katie Goerner.
“This group has built on the team culture from our great run last year,” Paxton said. “It was easy to step into this season. Every one of these girls works hard. Every one loves volleyball. But this season is about fun. We’re taking it one day at a time, trying to keep as much tradition as we can, with as much social distancing as we can.
“It’s been an easy transition for them, even with the fear of the unknown in, are we going to finish? Now we’ve got one game down. Now we look to Friday. Week to week. Just keep the positivity of what’s coming next.”