While Cinco Ranch was undefeated in District 19-6A volleyball play heading into Tuesday’s game against Tompkins, the Cougars had showed signs of vulnerability when it came to passing and defense during that streak.
In mid-September games with Seven Lakes, Tompkins and Katy, the Cougars dropped five combined sets. The struggles correlated with an injury to senior captain and primary setter Aislan Lennon, as players adjusted to new roles and sophomore Catalina Martinez was elevated from the junior varsity.
However, as the playoffs approach, the Cougars’ lineups are getting tighter and the difference is showing up drastically in the results. In contrast to earlier matchups, Cinco Ranch swept Seven Lakes on Friday, Oct. 11, and looked especially dominant during the Oct. 15 rematch with Tompkins, notching its fourth straight sweep, 25-9, 25-19, 25-22.
“Our passing was really good tonight,” Cinco Ranch coach Danielle Wells said. “We’re continuing to build certain rotations, and working on that, and just trying to get better. Some rotations, we’re pretty confident in, and then some rotations we’re still working on. There’s still time. We still have a few more weeks.”
The improvement has come as the connection between outside hitters and junior setters Eva Fitzgerald and Brooke Hirsch, and Martinez, has improved. Junior Hayley Byrd has also played well in the libero role.
Fitzgerald said it was a matter of gaining chemistry during practices, something the Cougars are still working on.
“I think it was just unexpected when it hit us, but we’ve adjusted pretty well,” she said of Lennon’s injury. “We just had to switch up our lineups and see what works.”
Against Tompkins, that included heavy doses of junior outside hitter Kayla Griebl. Along with senior Haley Payne, Griebl has emerged as a strong and efficient outside option as defenses attempt to stop star seniors Danyle Courtley and Madalyn O’Brien.
Griebl said with the defensive focus on her teammates, it allows her to think tactically and about her own offense. She finished with 13 kills, two off Courtley’s team-high 15.
“I kind of just paid attention more to my blocker,” Griebl said. “I saw that the middle was weaker, so I was trying to shoot it to where she wasn’t and I knew she wouldn’t be able to block. I try to pay attention more to the other side, and where the blockers are and aren’t.”
For her part, Fitzgerald said her job is easier when someone is hitting the ball well, like Courtley, Griebl, Payne (eight kills) and O’Brien (seven kills) were against Tompkins.
“I’ve just been jump-setting more and running a faster offense, and focusing on who my hot hitters are,” she said. “If Kayla is hitting every ball straight down, I’m obviously going to set her up more.”
Fitzgerald has also excelled at using her serve to attack, with four aces in the second set highlighting her work in that area against Tompkins.
“My coach tells me where to serve, and usually my serve ends up going in the opposite direction,” she said, laughing and downplaying her success. “I just try to be aggressive, and we work on keeping a consistent speed in practice, trying to keep it over 35 miles per hour.”
Wells said of Fitzgerald’s serving: “She’s very consistent. She brings a lot of power. Once she gets in a groove, she’s pretty good.”
The win improved Cinco Ranch to 30-5 overall and 9-0 in District 19-6A play, with Katy in second place in district with two losses. With three games left to play, the Cougars can clinch the district title with one more win. The Tigers also have a tough schedule down the stretch—games against Seven Lakes, Tompkins and Cinco Ranch remain—and one more loss would mean a shared title, at worst, for the Cougars.
Wells said the team wants to be the best in the district, but the girls have bigger sights as well.
“Our expectations are to go in and do the best we can,” she said. “And the best we can, it means we should be on top in our district. Any team can be beaten on any day, so we have to go in with the mindset that no matter what team is on the other side of the net, we have to play Cinco Ranch volleyball. Because we have a lot of experience on this team, they know that whatever number you are when you go into playoffs, you need to perform, or you go home, obviously.”