Midway volleyball head coach Ryan Porter said it simply when asked about his team’s outlook for the 2016 season: “incredibly optimistic.”

“They all work incredibly hard every day in the gym and in the weight room,” Porter said. “They push each other and are competing for playing time, and have one goal as a senior class, which is to get back to the state tournament.”

Porter has plenty of good reasons to be excited about the Panthers’ campaign. Ten of them, to be exact.

That’s how many returning players he has from last year’s regional quarterfinalist team. All but two are back.

“I think we all have a common goal,” Porter said. “We’re all working for the same thing.”

Midway and the rest of Central Texas have begun the early stages of volleyball season, when the schedule is dominated by tournaments across the state. District games start in the second half of the regular season.

The area produced three state tournament teams a year ago: Robinson (4A), Crawford (2A) and Kopperl (1A). All three teams finished just short of a championship, with Kopperl getting the closest after advancing to the 1A title game.

Midway wants to be part of that group this year in 6A. With the Panthers’ move to Region I, they’ll have to battle through a bevy of perennial powerhouses within the state’s top classification, including defending champ Lewisville Hebron.

“I’m very optimistic about our chances with where we go in the postseason,” Porter said. “With the realignment and moving to Region I, it definitely makes it more difficult. It’s nothing but a list of state champions and quality programs that we eventually would have to see in the playoffs.”

Midway is absolutely loaded with a near-identical lineup to the one that finished 36-8 last season. Five players are bound for Division I teams next year.

Allye Beth Deaton, a TCU commit, is back to power the Panthers’ offense after a 426-kill season that earned her Super Centex Player of the Year honors as a junior. She’s joined by fellow outside Samantha Sanders (Texas A&M commit) and middle blockers Avery Rhodes (Iowa State commit) and Miranda Youmans (North Texas commit).

Porter added even more offensive firepower to his team when Callie Williams, a Tennessee pledge, joined the team as a transfer from four-time defending TAPPS state champion Bishop Lynch.

“I think offensively we’re one of the more dominant teams in the state,” Porter said. “With the work of our setters, our offense is even faster and stronger than it has been in the past few years. Our block has approved immensely over the last year. I’m excited to see where it can get us.”

Rockets rebuilding with confidence

Robinson has built a reputation for being one of the toughest teams to beat in 4A, going 84-17 over the past two seasons with a pair of trips to the state tournament.

Now in their second season under head coach Kelsei Reynolds, the Rockets are a little younger than their predecessors after graduating eight seniors from the 2015 team. But this year’s group still possesses Robinson-caliber talent, and Reynolds still has high expectations for 2016 despite billing it as a “rebuilding season.”

“We’re young, for the most part,” Reynolds said. “We’re athletic, we’re scrappy, we’re working hard and we’re competing with teams. We’re looking to come out on top this year, even though we’re rebuilding and young.”

Robinson has big holes to fill with powerful outside hitter Bailey Meggs off to Tarleton State and setter Rylie Fuentes now at Texas A&M-Commerce. But the key pieces of the 2014 and 2015 state tournament teams remain intact.

Mallory McNew returns as a blocker and McKenna Walker is back at outside hitter. They’re joined by newcomers Kim McNew (Mallory’s sister) at setter and freshman libero Taylor Strain.

“Just all around, these kids are stepping up,” Reynolds said. “Playing different positions that they’ve never played before. We’re asking a lot out of them, and they’re responding.”

Robinson’s toughest grind might come before the postseason even begins. Reynolds expects Lorena, China Spring and Gatesville to make a run for the district title, alongside the Rockets.

Lorena, which finished 39-6 last season, is led by Maddie Miller, a Super Centex first-team selection at libero last season.

“It’s going to be a competitive season for sure,” Reynolds said.

Crawford ready for another run

Crawford’s trip to the 2015 state tournament was built on a rampage through its regional bracket. The Pirates outscored opponents 15-3 to secure a spot in 2A’s final four in Garland.

They ran into a tough Iola team that went on to win a state championship and lost just a single match all year. But the experience of playing on such a big state was sure to make Crawford’s returning players even better in 2016.

“For those couple of kids that got to play a lot, I think it helps them,” Pirates head coach Jeff Coker said. “It gives them an experience to draw from. For all those kids who got those extra practices and got to be on the floor, I think that helps you if you can get back.”

Coker has just a handful of players from the 32-13 lineup in 2015, but they play key roles. Haley Vaughn is back to handle setter, a position she played so well last year she was named first-team Super Centex. Morgan Claxton also returns to resume middle blocker duties.

The Pirates also moved up three players from junior varsity mid-season last year. They’ll get the full varsity experience in 2016.

“We’re young and we’re talented,” Coker said. “The only way to gain any experience is to go and get it. I think it’s one of those years where we’re going to make a lot of mistakes early on, maybe a few more mistakes early on than I would typically like.”

Other teams to watch

Kopperl capped its 35-12 record in 2015 with a spot in the 1A state championship game. The Eagles pushed Round-Top Carmine to a third set but couldn’t finish the job. Despite all their success, the team was relatively young with just one senior on the roster. With the majority of the lineup retained, including Super Centex Newcomer of the Year Logan Smith and second-team libero Madison Mooney, they have all the weapons to make a run for a state title once again.

West was a force in 3A last season, going 33-12 with a spot in the regional semifinal. This year they must replace a combined 752 kills between outside hitters Kenna Bing and Abby McKenzie, as well as setter Brooke Renegar.

Live Oak has risen to become a favorite to win it all in TAPPS 2A, kicking off the season ranked No. 1 in the 2A coaches’ poll. The Falcons finished 36-8 last season, reaching the 2A state semifinals, and return a pair of key weapons this year in Bailey Keith and Natalia Stringer.

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2016 volleyball players to watch

Position Name Height Year Team

OH Allye Beth Deaton 6-1 Sr. Midway

OH Samantha Sanders 6-1 Sr. Midway

OH Bailey Keith 6-0 Jr. Live Oak

OH Logan Smith 5-11 So. Kopperl

MB Natalia Stringer 5-9 Sr. Live Oak

MB Avery Rhodes 6-2 Sr. Midway

MB Alexis Parrish 6-1 Sr. University

MB Miranda Youmans 6-1 Sr. Midway

S Haley Vaughn 5-6 Jr. Crawford

S Callie Williams 5-9 Sr. Midway

L Maddie Miller 5-3 Sr. Lorena

L Madison Mooney 5-4 So. Kopperl

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