SAN ANTONIO, Texas - When head coach Jen Montoya stepped down in late November of 2017, it signaled the end of an era for the University of Incarnate Word volleyball team. A Providence high school graduate, Montoya had led the Cardinals for 13 years, tallying 20-win seasons in 2007 and 2009, and a search immediately began for someone to fill that vacancy.
Enter Samantha Dabbs.
The former Churchill standout was announced as the seventh head coach in program history in mid-December, and she's thrilled to return to the San Antonio area after stints as an assistant at North Florida, Cincinnati and Appalachian State. But now, less than a week away from starting her first regular season at UIW, she's most excited about getting to work with the women she'll be coaching.
"Having a new team is exciting," Dabbs said. "We are very young. We do have seven freshmen, and they have already stepped up in practices. It's really nice bringing new faces to the program, they are just like little sponges, soaking everything up, listening to every little thing that I say. I'm looking forward to developing a different chemistry and a different system within each practice, and hopefully that carries over into us playing very disciplined and competitive volleyball at the end of the year."
Acting as a head indoor volleyball coach for the first time in her career, Dabbs has the unique challenge of helping a team transition to the future, while also focusing on the present. She's looked to the Cardinals' seniors - specifically Autumn Lockley - for guidance.
"She leads by example all of the time," Dabbs said of Lockley. "Her passion comes out every time she steps onto the court. Maybe she's not the most vocal, but she does lead a lot by example. She's helped me implement a lot because, it being her senior year, she knows that this is all that she has left, and she wants to have a really successful senior year."
Lockey said she is just as excited to work with Dabbs. "It's really great. We love her, and we love our entire new staff. It gives us a fresh start on everything."
The Cardinals finished with an 8-15 overall record in 2017 and a 7-9 record in conference play; they ended up tied for eighth in the Southland Conference standings. Consistent improvement is a challenge in and of itself, regardless of record, and Dabbs knows what she wants to see out of her team early in the season.
"I'm trying to get this team to play a little bit faster, a little bit higher," Dabbs said. "They've been working hard in the weight room with our strength coaches. We've been trying to put in a lot of time on the little things. We can't have mental errors. That's the part that I'm really trying to implement in live play because you can get caught up really fast."
UIW got their first taste of in-game action on Aug. 16th with a scrimmage against the UTSA Roadrunners. The Cardinals were swept 3-0, but each set was more competitive than the last. That's a positive sign for the team to hang their hat on moving forward.
"I think we did a good job of progressing and getting better as the sets went on," Lockley explained. "We still have a lot of work to do as a team, but I saw a lot of good things."
"It's been really exciting so far," freshman Chloe Patton explained. "We have great team chemistry, and I'm excited to see how we're going to grow and progress throughout the season."
There's not much time to rest early in the season. Just two days after their scrimmage with UTSA, the Cardinals held an intersquad scrimmage. Now, they're preparing for their first of two tournaments on consecutive weekends, one in New Orleans and the other in San Marcos, where they'll play six total matches. With little chance to prepare for any of their opponents, Dabbs wants the team to concentrate on their own performance.
"We want to focus more on our side moving forward," Dabbs said. "That's what I want them to take from these first scrimmages. It's all about moving forward and knowing that they have to recover and transition from match to match, always thinking ahead. The team as a whole really embraces what we preach. They are excited, they're fresh, they're ready to go and they just want to show the Southland Conference what we're all about this year."
The Cardinals will play their first game of the 2018 season against the University of Texas at El Paso in the I-10 Challenge on Friday, Aug. 24th. The match begins at 11 a.m.