The 2020 volleyball season amid a pandemic has had its challenges. And it’s had its triumphs too.
Emphasis on the triumphs for the Lake Creek Lions.
But the challenges came first.
Back on Oct. 24, the Lions set off by bus for a Saturday doubleheader at two different sites down the Highway 59 corridor. Lake Creek was in a predicament to make up as many District 20-5A matches as they could fit into a weekly schedule after having paused the program at the end of September for two weeks due to COVID-19 protocol.
The first part of the day was a tough one. The Lions showed up at Kingwood Park High School and gave it their all. But in the end, the host Lady Panthers, one of the premier 5A programs in Greater Houston in recent years, came away with a five-set victory.
The Lions didn’t have much time to process that loss, which was their second in district play at that point.
Instead, the Lions boarded the bus, traveled north to Cleveland and played the Indians just a couple hours later. The result of that match was a sweep.
And since that sweep nearly a month ago, the Lions haven’t dropped a set.
That winning streak resulted in the school’s first playoff berth and then its first district title, which it shares with Kingwood Park and Montgomery, who were also 12-2 in district play.
Lake Creek is the top seed out of the trio thanks to tiebreakers and will travel to Cypress Falls High School on Friday for a 6 p.m. match against District 19-5A’s fourth-place team, Brenham.
“I think that they truly wanted and believed they could win that district title,” Lake Creek coach Tommie Lynne Sledge said of her team. “That was their focus and goal. Against Kingwood Park, we lost a hard five-set match that could have gone either way. They felt like it was on us and we could do something different in that outcome.”
The Lions swept Kingwood Park the second time around in district play and also avenged their other district loss against rival Montgomery.
“I think they had it in their mindset that this was something that they wanted,” Sledge said of winning the district title. “It was a goal that they had written down at the very beginning of the season. I don’t think they were surprised. If anything, they were just ecstatic that you can put in the hard work and accomplish your goals.”
The Lions were 18-18 overall in 2019 and just missed the playoffs a year ago after a 10-8 district record.
“It was kind of heartbreaking last year that they had that goal and just fell short by taking fifth place,” Sledge said. “To see them continue to grow as a program and the leadership has continued to grow all the way around. I’m just extremely proud of them to pull out a district championship and first seed in the playoffs.”
The Lions, 15-5 heading into the playoffs, returned this season with four seniors and a plethora of juniors and underclassmen ready to compete.
So far this season, sophomore Payton Woods leads the team in kills with 165 while junior Anna Ertischek is second with 131 and fellow junior Tyson Menville has 110. Woods also leads the Lions in aces with 61.
Seniors Madison Blane and Alexis Mack lead the team in blocks with 66 and 41 respectively. Mack recently signed to play at East Texas Baptist University.
Sophomore Mason Riley leads in digs with 272 while Woods follows with 155. Sophomore Lauren Greene is the leader in assists with 323 while senior Reagan Wells has 223.
“I think that within the three years, they’ve just continued to grow every year,” Sledge, who came to Lake Creek and started the program in 2018 after a very successful run at Oak Ridge, said. “We definitely got better throughout the season just with competing and pressure situations. They were extremely resilient and that’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of.”
Lake Creek started this year 3-3 in non-district play before the season was paused around Sept. 28.
The Lions knew to begin the season how fortunate they were to be able to playing knowing what happened to spring sports getting canceled earlier in the pandemic.
So when they returned from two weeks off, there was a renewed focus.
“I think they really embraced the ‘thank goodness we get to have a season and we get to play,’” Sledge said. “Instead of allowing negativity or frustration or anything like that, once they got back to the gym, it was more about every day does matter and count. We had talked about that before. But until you go through it, it’s not the same.”
Lake Creek won its first match back from its hiatus over Porter, but then fell to Montgomery later in the week. Sledge then won career game No. 300 the following afternoon against New Caney and the Lions then beat Dayton in their first of two Saturday doubleheaders.
After the Kingwood Park loss, the Lions have been perfect with 20 sets won and none lost. That was a crucial ingredient to winning the tiebreaker on set differential.
“Not only were they competing, but they were taking everyone in three (and) where they had gone four or five (sets) in the first round,” Sledge said. “They really brought the level of competition up. I think we surprised a lot of people with that. This group just kept fighting.”
Lake Creek now meets a Brenham team that was state-ranked earlier in the year and took fourth place in a very strong district.
The Cubettes are 17-5 overall and in the playoffs for the third straight season. Brenham hasn’t reached the area round since 2014 and are a decade removed from a trip to the state tournament.
“We have not played them in the past,” Sledge said. “I’m very aware of their program. They are a very strong program and always have been. Coach (Debbie) Yeager does a great job and they’re going to be ready to compete.”
Sledge said she scheduled teams from 19-5A like Magnolia and A&M Consolidated in non-district to get a taste of what their league is like.
“I feel like our districts were comparable on the aspect that every game counted,” Sledge said. “But when we set up my preseason, that’s why we played a few of those schools in that district. Because I knew who we would be competing with in this first round. We’re excited about it and looking forward to the challenge.”
No matter what happens Friday, Sledge couldn’t be more proud of how quickly the Lions have elevated to a district championship level.
“They had the mindset and were thinking about the process to be able to accomplish the district championship,” Sledge said. “They knew everything they had to do and it was never a question up in the air. It was always about us taking care of our business and it doesn’t matter what any other team does. They were laser-focused for sure.”