In just two short years at the helm, Navarro head volleyball coach Nicole Blakeman has built quite the program with the Lady Panthers.
That was never more evident than last season, one which Blakeman called a rebuilding year.
The Lady Panthers were 32-12 overall, finished second in District 30-4A to La Vernia, and made the regional semifinals.
Last year followed her first year as head coach at Navarro, when the team went 39-6 overall and made the regional finals.
Thus, the “rebuilding” designation from the coach.
“I’ve been lucky to have some really good kids,” Blakeman said. “I have to give a nod to my predecessor, Phyllis Fowler, (now at Texas Lutheran). She did a lot with the program — I just picked up where she left off and continued with what she started.”
The Lady Panthers were young last year, losing just three starters to graduation, so hopes are high for the team’s prospects this season.
“We pretty much have the same expectations we always do,” Blakeman said. “We’re starting out at a tournament with 6A teams, (at Westwood High School this weekend). Our goal is to compete against some really tough competition before we get to district.”
Blakeman’s squad has already started down that road, playing against Steele and Alamo Heights on Wednesday, splitting with the two larger schools in their first two matches of the season.
Blakeman has returning starters that racked up quite a few accolades last year.
Senior captain Carolyn Burch was an All-San Antonio 4A first team selection, an All-State selection and made the Gazette’s All-Area team as the libero for the squad.
“She’s a great leader, plays really great defense and has really good ball control,” Blakeman said.
Senior Kelly Helms, an outside hitter, gives the Lady Panthers serious height at the net at 6-foot-3. She was also an All-State selection, made first team All-District and joined Burch on the All-Area team.
“Kelly is a very smart player who’s done very well with what God has given her,” Blakeman said. “”She blocks well, hits well and is one of our co-captains this year.”
Maddie McCaig, a sophomore middle blocker, and Sara Benner, a junior setter, were second team All-District last year.
“Maddie is very explosive and powerful and plays as hard as she can,” Blakeman said. “Sara is a good leader, also has good ball control, runs the offense well and is an offensive threat when she needs to be.”
Two defensive specialists, juniors Nelly Brumley and Ashley Gosch, are expected to contribute a lot of minutes for Navarro this season.
“We were a very good defensive team last year, we kept the ball in play and those two, along with Carolyn, were the primary reason for that,” Blakeman said.
Returning starters also include junior middle blocker Haley Hoffman and sophomores Berklee Andrews (OH) and Terryn Wallace (OH/S).
Senior Samantha Smith, a setter, transferred into the program this year from Lifegate, while sophomore Kyndal Tate and junior Kaitlin Menchaca will all see significant playing time this season.
The coach expects La Vernia to be there again this season.
“I don’t know who they’ve got coming back, but they always have a strong program,” Blakeman said. “It doesn’t really matter who’s coming back, they are always good.”
The teams that finished behind Navarro last year at third, fourth and fifth in the district include Gonzales, Pleasanton and Cuero.
“I think Gonzales will be tough, because they always have so much size,” Blakeman said. “They don’t have a 6-foot-3 girl, but they have all the others.
“Pleasanton was strong last year, but they lost some kids, and Cuero was pretty young, so they could be another dangerous team.”
The coach also mentioned Poteet in the district, because of a “very strong coach,” and Brooks Academy as the most improved team last season.
To get through a very tough district, Blakeman cited what the Lady Panthers needed to improve on to make the playoffs and make another deep run.
“We have to buy in, improve our ball control and we have to become more of an offensive threat,” she said. “La Vernia is a huge roadblock, as are the other three teams that finished high in the district last year. In the region, Sinton (who Navarro beat at regionals last year) was very strong and they didn’t graduate anybody.”
Fulshear eliminated Navarro last season, and the coach also mentioned Needsville, Libertyville, Fredericksburg, and Wimberley standing in the way of the Lady Panthers and their goal for the season.
“Our ultimate goal — as it always is — is to go to state,” Blakeman said.
See the Lady Panthers results from the Westwood Tournament in story below.
Kevin Duke is the sports editor of the Seguin Gazette. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.