There were a lot of new faces on the court when the Lady Yellow Jackets began practice last season. That’s what happens when only two players with varsity experience make up the core from the previous year.
And while Denison had to put together a lineup that saw a majority of the rotations deploying underclassmen, the struggles that came along are hopefully in the past.
If the learning curve for such a large portion returning wasn’t too steep, the Lady Jackets are hopeful to be back in the playoff hunt following a two-year absence.
With a lot less uncertainty than this point a year ago, Denison opens the season at the Denton Tournament on Thursday with a better grasp of what is coming.
“I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to have,” Denison head coach Jana Kelly said. “Consistency is always really important. If they can play consistently early in the season, it tends to carry on. I think we have a chance to be a really solid team. We don’t have that much height so we have to make up for it in other places.”
It was a much harder task in 2018, when the Lady Jackets went 7-32 overall and 0-10 for a last-place finish in 10-5A play. Denison ended the season on a 13-match losing streak.
The program had to replace nine seniors that led the way for two straight campaigns with 20-plus victories. Trying to fill those minutes included just one senior returner, Hannah Bilderback, and an influx of 14 freshmen.
By the time things shook out, a majority of time when to freshmen and sophomores and at times the floor had five varsity newcomers on it.
“Last year I felt we fought for games; we got too far behind and they got away from us,” Kelly said. “If we keep that fight and continue to build on that, we can surprise some people.”
The Lady Jackets have had a year to work together, learn and expand their roles and hopefully produce more victories.
“We have some shoes to fill with Hannah leaving and wanting to get some depth,” Kelly said. “We’ve had some girls kinda step up and show some things I like seeing I think I’ll know even more this weekend with several games under out belts.”
Senior middle blocker Taryn Gaines was a first-team all-district selection after sharing Blocker of the Year honors as a sophomore.
“Taryn can be a difference-maker for us,” Kelly said.
A pair of juniors are back after earning second-team all-district accolades — middle blocker Laney Muirhead and setter Maddy Marr. Marr shared setting duties with sophomore Kenzie Clark, a set-up that will continue again this fall once Marr gets back into action following a mission trip.
“We’ll run a 5-1 with Kenzie until Maddy gets back and then go with a 6-2 like we did last season,” Kelly said.
Muirhead will start the year on the sidelines with an injury and sophomore Hannah Grinspan might not be available until September after hurting her ankle over the weekend.
Senior Rylie Buttrill opened last season on the sidelines with an injury but ended up in the libero spot as the year came to a close.
“Rylie filled in on the back row and she did a really good job,” Kelly said.
Senior Elizabeth Linwood and junior Madison Chambless and also return as part of the rotation and will not only look to fill the void in Muirhead’s absence but help take the defense’s focus off Gaines.
Juniors Cheyenne Grant and Shania Butler and sophomore Ashlinn Hamilton are the newcomers to the roster with Grant and Hamilton concentrating their efforts on the back row.
“They’re both very court-smart; natural athletes who can contribute anywhere you put them,” Kelly said.
In addition to non-district matches against North Lamar, Bells, Wichita Falls, Denton Ryan, Farmersville, Pilot Point, Nocona, Krum, Paris, Pottsboro and Melissa, Denison will host a tournament and also compete in the Argyle Tournament. The Lady Jackets kick off 10-5A play on Sept. 27 and are once again in a district with Sherman, Lovejoy, which was the Class 5A runner-up last season, McKinney North, Princeton and Wylie East.
“The biggest thing right now is finding the right person for the job,” Kelly said. “We have some players who did some things last year when given a certain job and we need that to continue.”