By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
SALADO – Taking over the downtrodden Salado volleyball program in 2004, a team that had managed one district victory each of the previous three seasons, new coach Bree Holz-Gonzales was beaming with excitement.
That excitement centered on the potential she saw in a close-knit group of five spunky middle-schoolers.
"When they were seventh-graders, you could just tell they were going to be something special. They were so athletic in every sport and everything that they did," Holz-Gonzales said. "It was amazing watching them. It was fun going to junior high games."
Four years later, the Lady Eagles made their first trip to the Class 2A region championship, thanks in large part to the combination of four experienced seniors and the five scrappy sophomores.
For Camryn Bintz, Brennan Boydstun, Brittney Frazier, Hadley Joiner and returning first-team all-district pick Jenna Sebek, their success on the court has everything to do with their friendship off it.
"We've known each other since like second grade so we've lived together, grown up together and we are just really good friends," said Boydstun, who describes herself as the most talkative of the group.
"And it shows on the court and it helps us a lot," Joiner said. "... We're not going to try and do better than the other. We're going to try and do better as a team so we all can do as good as we can."
With seniors including first-team all-state player Danielle Hazzard, Jane Riser, Lindsey Coffee and Kaitlyn Ruth gone, those sophomores are now the team leaders, filling the leadership role with a bond they've established over a decade of sleep-overs, going to the lake on weekends, and competing on many of the same sport teams growing up.
"We've been playing with each other for so long, we know how each other plays and we know what it takes to get each other pumped up," Joiner said.
"We know if one person can't get to a ball, another person is going to back you up and they're going to have it," said Frazier, the team's silent savior on defense.
Multi-sport athletes at the small 2A school, all five know a thing or two about what it takes to be winners, as the Lady Eagles (26-5, 6-1 in District 25-2A) have compiled 89 victories in the three years they've been on varsity, including going 17-6 in district.
Of course, Holz-Gonzales would have brought them up sooner had rules allowed.
"When they got to eighth grade and really learned how it hit and block, they would just crush teams and I was just waiting for them to become freshmen just to get them in the program and get them on varsity," she said.
Knowing what makes their friends tick had gone a long way to getting the most out of each other on the court, whether that includes encouragement or playful digging.
"I give Hadley a hard time so that she'll play better," Bintz said. "If she does something, I'll try to get her a little mad so maybe she'll hit harder."
"It works," Joiner shrugged.
Of course, while aggression and intensity are a part of almost any sport, there's also plenty of room for fun.
This year, the fun started with a jovial moment in the season-opening match against Harker Heights, who the Lady Eagles swept in three sets.
"The first time Hadley jump-served," Bintz said. "It was a beautiful serve, ..."
"I just watched it go over," Joiner interjected.
"... and the girl passed it back over to the spot where Hadley was supposed to be, and since she was admiring it, she completely missed it and ate it trying to get to the ball."
"She laughed at me the rest of the game for that," Joiner added sheepishly.
For the group, fun just comes naturally, as does a complete oneness that has helped form a team void of the usual animosity found between high school girls.
"They've been playing together since seventh grade, and they've been friends longer, so they don't let little petty things interfere with athletics," Holz-Gonzales said. "It's very different from the last few years, ... every day you'd walk in the gym and see who's fighting today, who's mad at each other today."
That's no more as the ties that bind have created a team built to win, something the Lady Eagles have done with consistency this season, locked in a three-way tie for the district lead with usual foes Rogers and Lago Vista. The Lady Eagles will face both in back-to-back matches next week as the team seeks its first-ever district title.
That notion became all the more difficult with an injury to Sebek, the team's tallest and most dominant spiker who is down but not out after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee two weeks ago against Lago Vista.
But with the assistance of a knee brace, and a lot of support from her teammates, Sebek and the rest of the Lady Eagles' fearsome five believe there's no limit to where their friendship can take them.
So much so that the five longtime friends have added a sixth to the group with the arrival of fellow junior Kelsey Luna, who joined the varsity rotation a month ago.
"I definitely think that it helps that there are so many of us, I think everybody has stepped up and everybody's pulled the rest of the team together," Bintz said.
Contact Alex Byington at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (254) 501-7566.