SCHERTZ – Heading into the 2019 season, the Clemens volleyball team had to shoulder a new kind of pressure: the weight of expectations.
In 2018, the Buffaloes roared through their regular season, finishing with a perfect 14-0 record in District 26-6A. A quick playoff exit to the eventual Class 6A Regional champion O'Connor Panthers in the second round couldn't diminish what the team had accomplished.
Clemens had established themselves as one of the best programs in the San Antonio area.
"Nobody really knew Clemens for volleyball," said senior setter Cassidy Steadman. "Coming out so strong last year and trying to do it again this year, we knew we had a big target on our back. We knew that there were going to be a lot of teams fighting even harder to take us down. It was a little nerve-wracking, but we have the entire school behind us, and we have a lot of pride in our unity."
That unity comes from a talented and dynamic senior class that has been playing together for nearly six years. Headlining that core is outside hitter Shelby O'Neal, who entered the 2019 season with her own set of expectations.
"It's different being the one that people need to lean on all the time," O'Neal said. "We had a lot of people we could rely on sophomore year and last year. This year, it's me, Cass, Lillie [Hill] and all of the other seniors that a lot of the underclassmen look to. I knew that they would need someone to rely on, and I wanted it to be me."
O'Neal has been an effective weapon for the Buffs since she joined the team as a freshman back in 2016 and has notched more than 300 kills in each season. But her return to the Buffaloes' lineup was an uncertainty after she broke her ankle in the offseason.
"I tore three ligaments in my ankle, and one was a full grade 3 tear," O'Neal explained. "I was immobilized for two months, and I was on a scooter for a really long time. After that, it was two-and-a-half months of rehab. Not working out for four-and-a-half months was really hard. I really couldn't do anything other than short cardio if I could handle it. If I got too stressed, it would cause my ankle to hurt. Once I got cleared to start running again, I had to run half an hour a day every day to get cleared to come back to playing. That was probably the hardest part of it, but I came back a little earlier than they expected and high school volleyball was where it all started for me, so it's my first time back."
A big part of O'Neal's recovery process was her support system, namely her future teammates at the University of Arizona. She committed to play for the Wildcats when he was a junior on Sept 17, 2018.
"Having my Arizona family behind me when I got hurt and being able to talk to my teammates about it really helped me," O'Neal said. "I feel like if I wasn't committed, and I got that serious injury, it would be even harder to find somewhere to go."
With her injury now in the rear view mirror, O'Neal hasn't missed a beat. She currently leads the Buffs with 408 kills and 55 aces, and is second on the team in digs and blocked shots. Synergy with her teammates has definitely helped her regain her stride.
"I've played with Shelby since seventh grade," Steadman said. "She's always been my middle or outside, and we've always connected. I love setting for her. She makes my job easy, and she makes it look easy. It's always worked."
The Buffaloes have plenty of talent around O'Neal. Steadman, for instance, finished 2018 with the sixth-most assists in Texas and has tallied 980 assists this season. Fellow senior libero Lillie Hill has provided a consistent bedrock along the backline with a team-high 548 digs. Senior right side hitter Ashley Breu and junior outside hitter/middle blocker Canada Buchanan have proven lethal as well, each breaking the 300-kill barrier for the second straight season. Combining their talents with the rest of Clemens' deep roster means the Buffaloes are a force to be reckoned with.
That much has been evident in the win-loss column. Clemens boasts a 36-4 overall record and has extended their district winning streak to 26 consecutive games after this past week's victories over San Marcos and New Braunfels Canyon. The Cougars arguably provided the Buffaloes' toughest test this season, taking a 2-1 set lead before Clemens stormed back to win the final two sets and stay perfect in District 26-6A. It was the Buffs' first five-set match this season, and with their backs were against the wall, they proved they were up to the task.
"It's been crazy. Those matches in Pearland and playing Brandeis were the last times that we lost, and that was back in August," O'Neal said. "Being on this really long win streak, everyone was really nervous going into the Canyon game. I know they wanted to beat us so bad, and they were ready to fight for it, so in practice we've been pushing each other a little bit harder. We've been working on staying ahead and coming back from big leads, pushing people to be better and overall accountability."
"It was really beneficial to get a wakeup call," Steadman explained. "It pushes us to work harder because we know in the playoffs, we're always going to face hard teams. It proves that we need to work even harder in practice and just push ourselves."
With three district games left on the regular season schedule and a second-straight district title within their grasp, the Buffs are slowly beginning to shift their focus to the playoffs and the potential for a deep run. The goal is simple: progress further than they ever have before.
"I think we're ready to compete for it," O'Neal said. "Our team is so excited. I love every single one of them. I feel like the work that we put in this gym and the work that we will continue putting in after these games will pay off. Everybody's ready to go far. We're not ready to end it here."
The Buffaloes will return to action Tuesday night with a match at East Central. The match is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.