Westwood and Pflugerville’s volleyball teams took the court for the first time in 2020 with different goals and different expectations.
But in an opener like no other Tuesday at Westwood High School, the two squads shared the experience of starting a season in a country still gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. Considering that many schools across the U.S. at both the prep and collegiate level will not be able to play this fall, launching that first serve and making the first pass seemed like a win regardless of the score.
"We’ve waited so long for this, and it felt like this day would never come," Westwood coach Tara Grant said. "We’re just happy to be playing volleyball. Whatever it looks like, I’m happy to be doing it."
RELATED: Photos: Westwood volleyball starts 2020 season versus Pflugerville
RELATED: Photos: Austin High volleyball and Pflugerville duel to start 2020 season
Things looked plenty different, as schools in Class 4A and smaller have found out since they were allowed to begin play in early August while larger schools had to wait until this week. The two teams did not exchange the customary hand slaps under the net before and after the game. They stayed on the same bench throughout the match, and each player donned masks when not on the court.
The fans in attendance for the three matches — Austin High also played a pair of contests — donned masks and socially distanced with the help of signs that closed off certain rows as well as a public-address announcer who reminded folks to follow the new guidelines. Some, including Westwood’s Madeleine Shrull and the entire Austin High team, played while wearing their masks.
Westwood (1-1) cruised to a 25-12, 25-15, 25-11 win over Pflugerville (0-2) in a meeting between two programs with contrasting aspirations for the 2020 season. Westwood, ranked No. 1 in the American-Statesman’s preseason Class 6A poll, wants to defend its district title and make a long run in the playoffs behind all-Centex setter Kenzie Beckham. In comparison, a young Pflugerville squad hopes to build on the momentum from last season, when the team had its first winning mark in six seasons and qualified for the postseason.
"It definitely looked like a first match," Grant said. "You’re always happy when you win, but our intensity wasn’t where it needed to be, and we made a lot of unforced errors that we didn’t need to make. It also felt like the quietest game of volleyball that I’ve ever watched in my life. I guess everyone with the masks on made it quieter. It was definitely different."
But Beckham looked the same. A four-year starter and two-time team captain for Westwood, Beckham runs the Warriors’ 5-1 rotation with poise and precision. She doled out 27 assists and shared the ball against Pflugerville; four different Warriors had at least five kills, led by Peyton Ferre with 11.
More importantly, Beckham would quickly gather her teammates in a huddle for a word of encouragement or a strategic tip when Pflugerville did make a rare run.
"It feels really good to be back out here," Beckham said. "We’ve waited a long time, we’ve practiced a lot, and we’re ready for the season. It’s a little different, but we’ll adapt."
And how has Beckham adapted her game, considering she earned all-state honors as a junior?
"Running a faster tempo, running quicker sets and just being more consistent all around," she said. "We were really good last year, and we did lose a lot of seniors, but we have a lot of girls ready to step up to the challenge."
Grant says attention to detail and a greater understanding of the game will make Beckham even better than last season.
"Her junior year was out of this world," Grant said. "Kenzie just has the ability on the court to correct the direction where we’re headed. If someone makes a mistake, she’ll make sure we get the point next time. She’s really good about communicating with the team."
After the match, Pflugerville coach Jayson Langman spent plenty of time communicating with his team about the need to stay positive during a grueling nondistrict schedule. The Panthers didn’t win a set in the losses to Westwood and Austin High, but they showed enough flashes to garner optimism about their chances in District 18-5A. Team captains Krystal Gundy and Kamryn Allen show poise under pressure, and newcomers like defensive specialist Camden Fredrickson impressed against the relentless Westwood offense.
Things won’t get any easier any time soon for the Panthers, who will also face strong teams such as Vista Ridge, Liberty Hill and Cedar Ridge before district play begins in two weeks.
"We’re going to struggle in serve-receive for a little bit," said Langman, who’s in his second season as the Panthers’ coach. "For a lot of our kids, it’s their first time to see varsity action, and they have to adjust to the speed.
"The schedule we have, it’s trial by fire. As long as the kids are embracing the challenge and trying to learn and not let the mistakes eat at them, they’ll be fine. I told them after the match, ‘Keep a good attitude, and we’ll get better.’"
Things couldn’t have started better for Austin High, a rising program bolstered by the arrival of move-ins such as Brooke Jeffrey from Lake Travis and Kasen Rosenthal from Westlake. Ranked No. 2 in the Statesman’s preseason poll, the Maroons made their case for the top spot by beating Pflugerville in three sets before topping Westwood 19-25, 25-12, 25-18, 25-23. Jeffrey had 13 kills and three blocks in the win over Westwood, and Samantha Unbehagen added 10 kills. Rosenthal, a Connecticut pledge, had 22 assists against the Warriors.