Lehman volleyball ready for fresh start as preseason begins

Lehman head coach Megan Cooper instructs her team during the first day of summer practice on Monday. Lehman will be looking to build on a disappointing 2011 campaign when the regular season starts this year. (Photo by Wes Ferguson)

by WES FERGUSON

The Lehman High volleyball program opened two-a-days on Monday, and amid the strength and conditioning workouts, the serving drills and dig exercises, the players looked around and noticed a few things that stood out about their teammates.

They’re not very tall. They’re also young – without a single senior coming out to play. But most importantly, the underclassmen impressed each other with their work ethic and optimistic attitude as they commit to improving the program under second-year coach Megan Cooper.

“We’re rough around the edges, but nobody’s giving up and everybody’s trying,” said junior setter Aleeya Eskridge. “Throughout the season we’ll get to know each other as a team, and it will be easier to be successful.”

Cooper is counting on Eskridge to be one of the leaders of her young team, which managed four district wins last year – a marked improvement over the previous season, but not enough to earn the school’s first playoff berth and not quite where Lehman wants its volleyball program to be.

“We have lost a lot of good upperclassman leadership that guided us, so I will have to work a little harder,” Eskridge said. “I’ve been playing club ball, and I gained a lot of experience and more knowledge of the sport – not to be just a strong player but be a smarter player.”

Another player expected to see a lot of court time is incoming sophomore Ofelia Negrete, who started as a freshman and is trying out for the defensive specialist position of libero.

“I’m glad Coach (Cooper) gave me the opportunity to play on varsity last year, because I wouldn’t be as good as I am,” Negrete said. “This year, hopefully we’ll make it work. We don’t have the height, but we do have the effort. I’m sure everybody is up for the challenge. We hustle every day and encourage each other.”

Negrete said she expects the Lady Lobos to excel at defense this season, and she’s counting on Eskridge to help her continue to improve as a player.

“Our blockers are getting there, and I think we’ll be able to dig out a lot of hits and kills,” she said. “Aleeya is good at everything, and she works hard every day. She’s very encouraging. Even though she’s older she’s not screaming or yapping or being rude. If I had a bad play, she says to shake it off.”

Eskridge also pointed to her head coach as a role model. Cooper, whose last name changed from Griffin when she married this summer, was a high school standout in Ohio and three-time All-Mid-American Conference selection at Miami of Ohio University. She coached the Lady Lobos’ junior varsity during the 2010 season.

“She taught me a lot,” Eskridge said. “I was kind of nervous because she was just out of college (when she became a Lehman coach), but that turned out to be a good thing because she still understands the game and is up with all the rules. She has the experience to get us where we need to go.”

During two-a-days Monday, Cooper kept a fast pace and said she was encouraged by her players’ effort during the first practice of the 2012 season.

“We’ve had a great session,” she said. “The girls are pushing each other, busting butts and doing really good.”

As the young players gain experience, Eskridge expects the height difference to be less of a disadvantage.

“It can be tough, but when one team has great strikers and the other team has better passers, it balances out,” she said. “I’m really excited to see how this year unfolds and who steps up to guide our team to be successful.”

Lehman opens its volleyball season at Del Valle on Aug. 14. The varsity will play in the Austin ISD Invitational Aug. 16-18 before the first home game of the season versus Crockett on Aug. 20, with the freshman and junior varsity set to play at 5:30 p.m., followed by the varsity at 6:30.

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