While the Lady Jackets add several new faces to the roster, Denison won’t have any time to waste if it wants to keep progressing forward.
The group which took some big steps last season isn’t the same as the one that will try to contend for the program’s first playoff berth since 2016.
And now, thanks to the University Interscholastic League’s decision to push back the start of the season for Class 5A and 6A programs by more than a month because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Lady Jackets won’t have many opportunities to ramp up for district play.
Denison’s first practice came earlier this week and the season opens on Friday when Denison hosts Denton Ryan. It will be just a couple of weeks and a handful of matches before the heart of the schedule arrives and pushes deep into November. Normally that would mean closing in on a trip to the state tournament, which now will be held during the second week of December.
The calendar may have changed, at least in 2020, but the goals won’t.
"Obviously our goal is to win as much as we can and make it to the playoffs," Lady Yellow Jackets head coach Jana Kelly said. "I feel like we have a solid group. As a coach you want to be as prepared as possible and have the kids as prepared as possible. We’ve had to fast-forward a little bit."
And while the finish in 2019 wasn’t what the Lady Jackets wanted, it was still an improvement over the prior season. Denison went 15-26 overall — which more than doubled its win total — and 2-8 in 10-5A play after going winless in district the prior season. Both of those wins came against Sherman, which was the first time the Lady Jackets swept their rivals since 2011.
Taking that next step with a winning record and getting to the postseason will come by relying on only a couple of returners and a lot of first-timers at the varsity level.
"So far they’re doing really good. They have great attitudes and they’re really adjusting quite well," Kelly said. "I feel like team chemistry is really good right now. I’m anxious to see how they match up against other varsity squads."
The biggest loss in the rotation is Taryn Gaines, who was first-team all-district at middle blocker, but the Lady Jackets also need to replace libero Rylie Buttrill and right side hitter Elizabeth Linwood after they were honorable mention all-district as seniors.
But the turnover didn’t stop with graduation as several Lady Jackets decided not to return. Senior setter Maddie Marr, who was second-team all-district, is only going to play soccer while juniors Ashlinn Hamilton and Hannah Grinspan are concentrating solely on softball.
Laney Muirhead, who was honorable mention all-district at middle blocker, Madison Chambless, Shania Butler and Mykayla Guidry are not playing for their senior year.
Denison does bring back junior setter Kenzie Clark, who was second-team all-district and is a three-year starter, and senior libero Cheyenne Grant, who stepped into the rotation last season.
The other two seniors on the roster are right side hitter Breanna Branch and middle blocker Katherine Hodge.
Nearly half of the newcomers are juniors — middle blocker/outside hitter Chloe Deweber, defensive specialists Karely Erives and Jaidyn Schutes and right side hitter Sophia Huffman.
Sophomores A’miyah Beamon and Akadia Pace could end up at outside hitter but are showing versatility throughout the rotation.
Freshman Maddie Harrington, who transferred from Grayson Christian, is at middle blocker. Junior Drew House, who transferred from Texoma Christian, could be added to the mix.
"We’ve been working with a three-middle rotation and I like how that’s working. I think we might explore that a little more, see what it looks like against other teams," Kelly said. "We’ve got some options. We’ve got a little bit of height."
The Lady Jackets will also have non-district matches against Denton Braswell, Wichita Falls and Greenville before opening District 10-5A play on Sept. 29.
Denison remained with Sherman, Lovejoy, Wylie East, Princeton and McKinney North while the latest realignment added Prosper Rock Hill, which is a first-year program, and The Colony to the six holdover schools.
"Our district did not get any easier with the addition of The Colony and Prosper Rock Hill," Kelly said. "Hopefully we’re in that mix."