HELOTES – If the road to state in 2017 was a fairy tale, O'Connor's return in 2018 was an affirmation.
On Nov 10, the Panthers made program history with a dramatic five-set victory over District 28-6A rival Clark, earning the program's second straight regional title and another berth in the Class 6A UIL state tournament.
The goal in 2019 is simple: Do it again.
O'Connor lost seven seniors to graduation, including Marina de la Rosa, Gabby de los Santos, Peyton Hummel, and Jordan Schenkel, but return eight upperclassmen from last year's roster. Seniors Kali Nelson, Sunnie Ozment, Bella Dena and Grace Ramirez will try to lead this young and experienced core back to Garland.
"We lost a lot of people that were key players, but the new players have come in and done a very good job of contributing and mixing it up," said junior outside hitter Bryshanna Brown.
Judging by the team's performance early in the season, the Panthers haven't lost a step. On opening night, O'Connor hosted another Class 6A powerhouse, Canyon, and looked strong in a convincing sweep of the Cougarettes.
"Playing our first game was really exciting," said Nelson. "It's Canyon. Some of our old teammates are on that team, and we're just very excited to be able to play together for the first time and see what we can do."
"We did a very good job blocking and playing defense," Brown explained. "We're mostly a defensive team. Our offense was putting the ball down well, which was a good sign."
In both of the match's first two sets, the Panthers trailed by three points, but rallied to win both. That's a positive sign for a team still trying to find its rhythm.
"We were learning to fight back, even if we were getting down on the scoreboard," Nelson said. "We always came back strong and kept working together. We're not overconfident, obviously, but we're very confident in the fact that we know we can work well together. The chemistry is definitely there. I think that's our biggest strength. We know each others' strengths, so we can take advantage of those, and if we have weaknesses, we can compensate."
Following that victory, O'Connor packed up and traveled to Pearland, where they played nine matches over a three day span. After that gauntlet of a schedule, the Panthers sit at 6-4 overall. Their next stretch of matches in August will all be against local competition, and they know the rest of the San Antonio area -- especially District 28-6A -- will look to knock them off.
"We do have a big target on our back, but I think that just makes us want to be even more competitive." Brown said. "It pushes us to want to do the same thing as last year. This time we want to win it all."
"It's going to be very competitive this year and it'll be challenging," Nelson said. "I think we're ready for it."
O'Connor returns to action Tuesday night against Smithson Valley at 5:30 p.m. They'll then return home to host Reagan in a rematch of last year's Bi-District round on Wednesday at 6:00 p.m.