East Texas Handed Another Big School Blow In Texas High’s Loss To Highland Park
WILLS POINT -- Highland Park was undoubtedly the better team in its 25-14, 25-17, 25-18 sweep of Texas High in the opening round of the Class 5A state playoffs Tuesday at Wills Point High School.
But there had to be more to it than just Highland Park possessing a beach volleyball all-star and the Lady Tigers' lack of such an established player. On second thought, maybe that is the perfect microcosm of this region's large-sized schools' shared playoff issue.
It's not just a Texas High problem. Lucas Lovejoy of the Metroplex swept Pine Tree of Longview on the same Wills Point floor just before the Lady Tigers were called out of their locker room. In fact, four of the five East Texas schools that played Tuesday in Class 6A or Class 5A playoff matches lost to schools within a short drive of major Texas cities.
"Being in the area that we are in, a lot of teams they have to play against in the playoffs play a lot of club ball," Texas High coach Melissa Trotter-Hardy said. "Our girls, you know, it's not very predominant in our area. So they've got to work harder. They've got to go to camps, and a lot of them are strained to do so."
Highland Park, an independent municipality within the City of Dallas, had players with year-round opportunities to play alongside and against the best the nation's third-largest metropolis has to offer thanks to a deep select club volleyball culture.
Players participating in club systems get paired based on skill level across hundreds of teams at all age levels, none of which are bound by school zoning.
The highest level of club competition is often times even better than the high school level as consequence. So the best players are that much better when it is time to return to the school team, and all participants benefit from up to eight extra months of competition outside Texas' high school season.
Texas High is only at the center of the Texarkana area and about 175 miles from all that competition. Despite the school's tradition of producing elite athletes, like NFL quarterback Ryan Mallett on the boys side of things, there are not a lot of opportunities for extra extracurricular specialization in volleyball.
Highland Park's elite senior hitter Jordan Westendorff, a future scholarship beach volleyball player at TCU, somewhat exemplifies the geographical divide. In the Metroplex alone, she has the complimenting teammates lightly scattered across hundreds of tightly packed high schools needed to advance into and compete in national beach tournaments.
Translate that to conventional club volleyball.
There's just no built up, tiered system like that in East Texas' anchor cities to receive and strengthen the best players. With justifiable reasoning since Texarkana is more than 60 miles away from any remote stretch of the Longview-Marshall-Tyler area, which in turn is 50 miles from any place loosely associated with the Lufkin-Nacogdoches area.
Even if driving a serious distance wasn't an issue, the region is short by several million families to field several hundred relatively skilled teams at any age level.
Westendorff scored a team-best 15 points in Highland Park's win on 14 kills and an aced serve.
She crushed all the other players on both teams in terms of vertical reach. She hit the ball much harder than any other player. One photographer shooting the match said her movements on the court reminded them of Michael Jordan starting a dunk at the free throw line.
Highland Park setter Madeline Ngo recorded 35 assists in just three sets. She could tee up the hitters around her, but she also often cross-passed to a high-flying Westendorff for volleyball's answer to an alley-oop.
When Westendorff couldn't score, she frequently hit hard enough that the defending Lady Tigers couldn't predict the movement of the ball coming up after hitting their own hands. That messed up Texas High's timing as it set up to play offense, often resulted in it simply giving the ball back to Highland Park and hoping it could get a more manageable strike from a different player the next time around.
"We were expecting it," Trotter-Hardy said. "We've seen some girls that hit pretty hard before. Our blocking just has to come together. We're not used to a lot of teams setting the ball off the net in our district, so we have to adjust to that. With our timing not being right -- Hitting that hard, coming that fast, there are a lot of things you have to adjust to."
Sophomore hitter Treyaunna Rush guided Texas High with eight total points.
That's the silver lining for the Lady Tigers. Only one player on its team, Takeba Dowden, will graduate in May whereas 18 other players on their playoff roster will be back.
While the region can't compete with the state's exploding cities to offer a robust set of year-round club teams, it always can bank on a better squads the next high school season as long as there's experience returning.
Texas High will be experienced.
"They're not going to be the 2016 team," Trotter-Hardy said. "They're going to be to 2017 team. They're going to be smarter, quicker and faster. All of the girls except for maybe three of them played varsity last year. I had a really young team last year, too. We'll be working a lot on volleyball IQ and technique, technique, technique.
"When you play with a club you do a lot of reps. Reps, reps, reps. That's what we're trying to work on right now with those girls. Reps, being disciplined, technique and that IQ."