The 2020 Rockport-Fulton High School (RFHS) Lady Pirate varsity volleyball team has its sights set on making a deeper push into the postseason, all the while appreciating what they have during a season made distinct by COVID-19.
RFHS Head Volleyball Coach Mark Jeffery begins his first season ever as a high school head volleyball coach.
It is the first time in 11 years RFHS will play under a new regime. Jessica Clark, whom now serves in an assistant role, led the Lady Pirates for 11 years; making numerous, deep runs into the playoffs.
Jeffery’s experience in volleyball comes from being a former club player and club head coach in Canada. He also assisted a collegiate volleyball team during his time as a student-athlete. Since arriving at RFHS, he has coached at every level of middle school, freshman, and junior varsity volleyball teams.
Nonetheless, experience aside, COVID-19 has brought about a big change for everyone involved. Jeffery said it’s made him think more carefully about everything going into the season.
“The most important thing is to keep the kids safe, so we have to make sure we’re doing the best we can to keep them safe while still allowing them to play,” said Jeffery.
A big change COVID-19 has brought about is the inability to play in and host tournaments. As part of the University Interscholastic League (UIL) COVID-19 guidelines, tournaments were essentially scrapped from non-district play.
“That’s a huge thing, we’re limited in game exposure. The tournaments really, really helped to get the kids to know each other,” said Jeffery.
Without tournament play, it was also a struggle for RFHS to find games in the area with most of the Rio Grande Valley still preventing extra-curricular activity.
“They (UIL) gave us the opportunity to play another game a week, but then another thing was trying to find games,” said Jeffery. “Being secluded in South Texas really limits us because the valley’s not playing at all, so it’s been really tough to find games. We’ve been fortunate to find the games we have.”
Sydnee Wanzer, RFHS’s lone senior player, say’s it affects her knowing at any time, COVID-19 could potentially end the season.
“I’m very scared of our season ending,” said Wanzer. “I’m graduating early, so this is all I have left.”
Kaylee Howell said while COVID-19 has drastically changed the atmosphere of game days and limited the amount of game experience altogether, she said she feels like people are caring more for each others well-being.
“I feel like everyone’s appreciating every game, and realizing any game could be our last because of (COVID-19) cancellations,” said Howell. “Everyone’s just really appreciating their chance to play.”
A COVID-19 cancellation became a reality for the Aransas County Independent School District last week when a varsity football player tested positive. The positive test forced the RFHS varsity football team to reschedule one game, cancel a game, and is now unable to practice until Monday, Sept. 14.
Jeffery said while the team is taking the opportunity to continue playing one day at a time, the goal for RFHS remains a district championship and a deeper run into the playoffs.
“We’ve kind of been stuck the past few years at the second round of playoffs, so getting past that second round I think would be a big step in the right direction for the program,” said Jeffery.
RFHS will also play in a new look 4A District 26. The district features old rivals such as Sinton, Beeville, West Oso, and Ingleside; and introduces new ones in Miller and Calhoun.
“It’s going to be a good district. We’re going to have to bring it every single night in order to give us a chance to make the playoffs and bring home a district championship,” said Jeffery.
RFHS consists of one senior, eight juniors, and three sophomores.
The lone senior, Wanzer, said being on the team has been a lot of fun for her and she’s grateful to still be playing with them as an outside hitter.
“I love it. I’ve been playing with some of these girls since I was in high school,” said Wanzer. “I like how they look up to me, they’re so sweet. They’re always trying to wish me the best and keep me up during this time.”
Jeffery said Wanzer brings an energy to the floor when it’s needed from a veteran presence.
“She’s phenomenal in practice,” said Jeffery. “When there’s times the girls don’t feel like practicing that much, she’s always there to bring energy.”
Juniors are Howell, Mikayla Molina, Faith Ngo, Kelsey Polasek, Kaylie Skinner, Lauren Moore, Lilith Solis, and Payton Martinez.
Howell was District 31-4A’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 as a middle blocker and returns with a talented core of juniors whom make up most of RFHS’ starting rotation.
I’m really excited for this year because there’s a lot more juniors, my class, and we’re really close,” said Howell. “I’m really liking the team chemistry, I think it’s going really well and it just gives us time to grow (for next year).”
Solis and Skinner will rotate with Howell in the middle.
“We have two first year varsity middles so they’re slowly starting to adapt to the speed of the game,” said Jeffery. “They both offer a different dynamic. Lilith’s fiery and competitive; she’s going to find a way to get the ball on the floor. Skinner is a bit more polished, but we’re working on bringing a little more competitiveness out of her.”
Molina, picked Newcomer of the Year in RFHS’ district last season, will rotate with two other sophomore setters and brings a veteran presence to the floor.
“She does a great job delivering quality balls for our hitters to put away and she’s done a nice job with her defense,” said Jeffery.
Ngo and Moore rotate as outside hitters and bring the firepower for RFHS on the outside.
“Ngo’s confidence is way up this year,” said Jeffery. “I think she’s done a really good job bringing a positive energy to the floor.”
Martinez will start at libero for RFHS and is backed up by Polasek, a defensive specialist.
“Martinez has done a fantastic job,” said Jeffery. “She’s always been a good defender; her serve-receive’s been a bit wishy-washy, but she’s done a really good job making some adjustments we’ve worked on in practice.”
Sophomores are Sophia Byrom, Alana Garcia, and Messiah Hernandez.
Byrom moves in from Sinton and has fit in nicely with RFHS as an offensive minded setter.
Garcia is a first year varsity player and brings another weapon on the outside for RFHS.
“She’s done a really, really good job at making some adjustments to her swing,” said Jeffery.
Hernandez, another first year varsity player, rotates at setter and is still learning the position.
“She’s learning really, really quick,” said Jeffery. “She has phenomenal hands, so we’re just trying to get her to learn to get into proper position so she can deliver a better ball.”
RFHS opened its district season Tuesday, Sept. 8 at Ingleside.