As close as it was when the Lady Yellow Jackets ended their postseason drought two years ago, it was even closer when Denison just missed out on a return trip to the playoffs last season.
And even though there will be a new district to contend with in trying to reach their goals, the Lady Jackets will have almost an entirely new roster to work with as Denison opens the season at Whitesboro tonight at 6 p.m.
Even as the first match approached and scrimmages were being held, the competition for the 10 or so open spots on the varsity included just about every player in the program, regardless of grade or experience level.
“It really is pretty wide open. I have an idea of how things are going to look,” Denison head coach Jana Kelly said. “I see some good things. The best thing about this group is their attitude is great and their work ethic is great.”
In 2017 the Lady Jackets were trying to build off a bi-district appearance with almost the entire lineup back. Denison broke the 20-win plateau again, finishing with a 23-15 mark after an 18-5 start, but ended up on the short end of a three-way tie-breaker for the final 5-5A playoff berth.
The Lady Jackets, Denton and Denton Braswell were fourth in the standings and Denison won a coin-flip to face Denton after the Lady Broncos topped Braswell. But Denton came away with the victory to advance to the playoffs and the Lady Jackets’ large senior core — nine players to be exact — ended with a disappointing finish that included losing five of the final six regular-season matches when just one win would have kept the season going.
“The pressure is on to make the playoffs,” Kelly said. “Losing that play-in game after tying for fourth left a bitter taste in our mouths. I was disappointed with how last year ended.”
Replacing almost all of that production falls to the fresh faces surrounding the only two returning varsity players — senior Hannah Bilderback and junior Taryn Gaines. The only other senior who will be on the roster is Emory Redwine.
Gone is Taylor Greenameyer, the 5-5A Offensive Player of the Year as well as first-team all-district pick Taylor Dawes, second-team all-district pick Courtney Gillespie and honorable mention all-district choices Kiara Scott, Drew Hayes and Kenli Powell.
Gaines shared the district’s Blocker of the Year honor and will be a focal point again at the net.
Among those fighting for time with her on the front row are junior Liz Linwood and sophomores Laney Muirhead, Madison Chambless, Mykala Guidry and Shaniya Butler. Junior Rylie Buttrill enters the season on the sideline with an injury but could work her way into the rotation at some point.
“Our biggest challenge is to find the girls to fill the spots but also the right combination of girls,” Kelly said. “They’re athletic girls that are going to grow into it.”
Junior Lindsey Dawes is following her older sister at the libero spot.
In the search for a setter, Denison has narrowed the choices to three but one of those in the mix, sophomore Maddy Marr, is waiting to get cleared from a broken leg during soccer season in January. Redwine has been filling in since the spring and freshman Kenzie Clark could also be an option to run the offense.
There are 14 freshmen in the program and Kelly thinks more than a couple could end up playing significant roles down the stretch of the district schedule.
“We’re really young. I’m going to be depending on some freshmen and sophomores to be filling some big shoes,” she said. “They’re going to have to show me what it takes to fill that spot.”
In addition to non-district matches against Celina, Van Alstyne, Anna, North Lamar, Sanger, Nocona and Bonham twice, the Lady Jackets will host a tournament on August 16-18 and play in the Whitesboro and Denton tournaments before district play begins on September 18.
Denison will move into District 10-5A and face Sherman, McKinney North, Lovejoy, Princeton and Wylie East to determine the four playoff teams. Sherman, Lovejoy, Wylie East and Princeton, in 4A, were all in the postseason last fall.
“It’s always nice to have a couple more preseason games on the schedule to work out the kinks,” Kelly said. “I think it’s going to be a pretty competitive district.”