SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Coming off of back-to-back seasons with 30-plus wins and single-digit losses, the Clark volleyball team once again entered 2018 with high expectations. Losing their opening match, a 3-2 decision to New Braunfels, wasn't the start the Cougars had in mind. But for a team still trying to find its identity early in the season, the loss was a blessing in disguise.
"We learned a lot from that," said senior middle blocker Kara McGhee, "We came to practice more motivated, and we're definitely putting in 100 percent effort all the time."
"I think it showed us that we're in control," explained head coach Melissa Miller, "If we play Clark volleyball on our side of the net, it's typically going to take care of itself. If we get caught up in what the other team is doing, or we try to change things and play outside of ourselves, it doesn't go our way."
Since that match on Aug. 7, the Cougars have rolled right through their schedule, posting an impressive 36-3 overall record. Their last loss? Over a month ago. What's even more incredible is their margin of victory in District 28-6A: Clark sits atop the district standings with a perfect 11-0 record, and they haven't dropped a single set to district opponents this season.
So why are the Cougars so dominant?
One of the biggest reasons is Clark's experience. Despite losing four contributing seniors from last year's 38-5 team, over half of this year's roster is comprised of upperclassmen - five seniors and eight juniors - headlined by McGhee, a Baylor commit who leads the team with 343 kills this season. Needless to say, this team knows how to win.
"I definitely think the personalities on our team this year are extremely different, but since we did so well last year, we definitely felt a little bit of pressure coming into this season wanting to do just as well," McGhee explained. "I think that we're doing just that."
"They saw how hard our seniors worked, what leadership was, and these guys have picked right up from where we ended last year," Miller agreed.
That experience has helped keep this team level-headed, and most importantly, focused on short-term goals rather than long-term achievements.
"We just take every match at a time and we don't care about the end result," explained senior setter Ashley Hu, who leads the team with 627 assists. "When we make mistakes, we come back and we learn from those mistakes. I think that's really helping us this season. We want to take care of every single game, every single set and every single match."
Coach Miller, a former Clark volleyball player herself, is entering her third season at the helm of the program, and she thinks this year's Cougars are more self-motivated than ever.
"Over the past few years, I've seen them take control of that mentality," Miller said. "I don't have to be the one that's in there cheering them on and pushing them. They've taken that role themselves. They've set their own expectations and their own goals, and they're the ones that are motivating each other to get there. I don't know that I've ever had a team that I enjoy practice so much. We know what their weaknesses are individually and as a team, and they want to fix them. Practices go by so quick and they're very productive, which is all you can ask for as a coach."
Roster depth is another big key for the Cougars this year. So far, five players have tallied 80 or more kills, three of them breaking triple digits, while three players have over 150 assists. But beyond the stat sheet, the team says they genuinely get along on and off the court.
"I think the chemistry we have together is amazing," Hu said, "We just love each other so much and we just play really well together. I love every single one of the girls on the team, and I think it's just been so much more fun as a senior because it's your last ride and you want to make it count the most."
"It's hard to get 16 girls together that really choose to be together," Miller explained. "Once, I gave them the day off and went to see a movie with my mom. The team was all there. They took a team day together without me facilitating it and we all ended up seeing the same movie. I don't think you can find that in a lot of high school teams. We spend so much time together in preseason and tournaments with so many games, that it says a lot about them that on their day off, they still wanted to be together and hang out."
Clark has seven more games between them and the end of the regular season, all big district matchups starting with a showdown against 9-2 Brandeis Tuesday, Oct. 2. The Cougars know the challenge ahead of them, but that won't change their approach moving forward.
"There's no days off here," Miller said. "We look to get better every single time we step in the gym. We've got a list of things that we want to work on, so as long as we're working on those things in practices and translating it into games, I think we'll continue being successful."