By Alex Byington and Kevin Posival
The Cove Herald
For the last five years, the Salado volleyball team was required to complete a mile run in under eight minutes on the first day of practice.
Half an hour into Monday morning's first practice under new coach Rachel Lee, the Lady Eagle players were looking back on the timed run like it was the good old days.
"It's about 20 minutes of conditioning, lunges, running - it's brutal, it really is," the former Converse Judson coach said Tuesday.
At programs like Salado and Ellison, where assistant William De Gracia takes the reins as head coach, there is little time for long, drawn-out introductions as area volleyball teams prepare for the start of live game action next Monday.
"I always feel like there's so much to do the first week and so little time to get it all done," Lee said. "And I'm so excited that sometimes I'm afraid I'm moving too fast. But they've kept up with me, they've responded really well."
Along with the challenges of taking over established programs - Salado has a four-year playoff streak - several area coaches are dealing with heightened expectations created from returning experience on and off the court.
Copperas Cove enters this season again as not only a favorite to earn a playoff spot, but content for the District 12-5A crown as well. The Lady Bulldawgs went 31-11 last year, finishing third in 12-5A at 11-3. They also made history with the program's first win over A&M Consolidated under head coach Cari Lowery.
The three-month race for the playoffs begins Monday, with all 10 area programs entering the season with unfiltered optimism and unblemished records.
"We're working on building a strong volleyball tradition here at (Harker) Heights, and I feel like the girls on this year's team have taken the initiative," said third-year Heights coach Chris Wiley, whose Lady Knights finished a game out of 12-5A's fourth playoff spot last season. "They've worked together all summer long to make themselves better and I feel like we'll be one of the (playoff) teams when it comes down to it."
But while every team starts off with postseason expectations, the Killeen Lady Roos are coming off a season when they actually achieved the playoff quest, along with Belton, Cove, Gatesville, Lampasas and Salado. The Lady Dawgs have reach the postseason in each of the last five years.
"I expect us to be back in the playoffs again and go further this time," said fifth-year Killeen coach Shelly Harris. "I do expect that ... I think the girls do, (too)."
With excitement and expectations running full tilt, this week conditioning, preparation and chemistry-building among both players and coaches takes paramount.
"We've still got a ways to go, but they've made changes and been so coachable and so receptive to everything that I've asked them to do that I'm really excited," Lee said. "If they continue to do so, we're going to be awesome."