NEEDVILLE — The past two seasons have been night and day for the Needville High School volleyball team.
The 2020 season was marked by high expectations with a No. 1 ranking in state polls, while the Lady Jays flew under the radar in 2021.
But the qualify of play never dipped for Needville.
As a result, the Lady Jays are back at the state tournament for the 11th time in program history.
“It’s almost better; I like being the underdog,” Needville head coach Amy Schultz said. “It’s less pressure and you have nothing to lose. You play as well as you can and see what happens.”
The Lady Jays had to find replacements for Maddy Hrncir, Hattie Smith and Bri Pena in the rotation, but Needville had a strong core back.
Cayla Kozik, Ashley Fojtik, Yasmyn Ochoa, Alyssa Edwards and Sarah Doggett had one goal in mind for 2021: return to the regional champion for a rematch with Wimberley.
The Lady Jays battled through a five-set nailbiter to punch their ticket to Garland for the first time since 2018.
The win over Wimberley was important for the senior class and it has the Lady Jays on an emotional high.
“This has been amazing,” Sarah Doggett said. “This has been the peak of my high school career. I’ve never wanted something more, especially after we lost last year (in the regional finals).
“It’s a dream come true.”
A handful of freshman call-ups on the 2018 team are returning to the state tournament and it's a valuable asset for coach Schultz.
“100% that experience help,” Schultz said. “I was talking to Ashley (Fojtik) and Cayla (Kozik) about the experience. I had moved them up as freshmen in 2018. They remember how great the whole moment was.”
Needville enters the state tournament with wins in 18 of their last 20 games, and the Lady Jays rolled through District 25-4A play with a perfect 12-0 mark.
“It’s really crazy because nobody thought we could do it,” Yasmyn Ochoa said. “I just want to push hard and finish strong with my team.”
The road for Needville wasn’t a straight path, the Lady Jays had to relearn how to play as a team and rework their roster during the 2021 season.
A early defining moment for Needville was a game against 3A regional finalist: East Bernard.
“We did not do well earlier in the season, especially against East Bernard,” Schultz said. “We were yelling at each other a lot. We were frustrated because were losing.
“Now we don’t do that anymore. We build each other up now.”
The team mentality resulted in a roster that does a little bit of everything. Fojtik leads the team in assists and third in kills. Kozik is second in digs and first in kills.
“We expect a lot out of each other,” Fojtik said. “We want to lift each other up instead of bringing each other down. We want to work as a team.”
Alyssa Edwards had a major role change during the season, moving from libero to outside hitter with the team dealing with injuries.
“It’s been different,” Edwards said. “I’ve had ups and downs. I’ve practiced harder and the girls have helped throughout the process. It’s different than libero, but my team has helped me feel confident.”
Edwards is aware of her limitations in the front row, but she makes the most of her opportunities.
“I’m not one of the people that will get the ball down, but I’m smart and try to get the ball in the court,” Edwards said. “All of our hitters are amazing and they do a great job of getting the ball down.”
Now Needville turns their focus to Celina before a potential match against either Bellville or Decatur.
Celina is making the trip to the state tournament for the first time in Lady Bobcats history. Coach Ginger Murray’s squad has put together an impressive season mark of 41-1.
“Celina doesn’t make a lot of errors,” Schultz said. “They are very smart.
“I think they’ll be nervous since they’ve never been to state. We were nervous our first time back in 2017 and lost our first match against Liberty Hill. Then we did great from there on out.”
No matter what happens, the Lady Jays are ready to make some memories.
“I want the memories at state,” Fojtik said. “I was moved up as a freshman and now it comes full circle to be back.”