With another challenging pre-district slate behind them, the No. 16 Brownwood Lady Lions have turned their focus to defending their District 2-3A volleyball championship — which begins at 6 p.m. when Snyder invades Warren Gym.

Though the Lady Lions’ overall record of 11-13 might not appear impressive, most of Brownwood victories have come against Class 4A and 5A programs — as have the majority of the defeats. Only one Class 3A program — No. 6 Fredericksburg — has upended the Lady Lions, who have battled injuries and illnesses throughout a significant portion of the early schedule.

“I have to be working with some of the most amazing young ladies,” said Lady Lions head coach Mary Steed. “Each week the girls have been asked to play different positions due to injuries and illnesses. With only three athletes having prior experience on the varsity level, we’ve had to make adjustments to try and present the strongest attack and defense possible.

“Consequently, this season has been an amazing journey in hard work, patience and belief that we will find the strongest, most productive lineup. The girls have come together and I believe in my heart they are ready for district play.”

Through the first 24 matches, the Lady Lions have been led by the senior trio of Julie Kennedy, Chloe Geye and Sheldyn Miller — the only members of last season’s state finalist squad back for the 2009 campaign. Steed is pleased with both the leadership and level of play the seniors have exhibited, which has helped carry the Lady Lions early as six newcomers adjusted to the varsity game.

“The seniors have surpassed my expectations,” Steed said. “Imagine how difficult it is to try and lead such an inexperienced team with your own play, then be asked to change positions because of team weaknesses, and then readjust because of illnesses and injuries. Talk about a mammoth task, and then not to complain in the process. They are truly champions on the court and in my heart.”

Juniors Shelbie Harry and Alicia Castillo, along with sophomores Kelsey Gober, Sarah Underwood, Melissa Rmeili and Hadley Lindley, are preparing to take part in their first district race as Lady Lions. Steed has been impressed with the growth of the younger players during the pre-district campaign.

“Pre-district competition is almost an experiment in trying to find the right position for each athlete, the right lineup for team strength and the right chemistry for team bonding,” Steed said. “Every coach realizes the monumental task at hand and it has to be done in the shortest period of time. I believe the girls have done an amazing job in trying to adjust and support the decisions that have been made. The underclassmen have shown that they are ready for the task at hand — defending our district championship.”

Heading into league play, the Lady Lions’ strength is on offense — both at the net and behind the service line.

“At times, our serving can look exceptional,” Steed said. “We have athletes that have scored numerous points with their jump serving and good serving locations. I’m really proud of how strong we serve and put pressure on our opposition.

“Also, our offense is looking real strong with great outside attacks from Julie, Chloe, Kelsey and Shelby and middle attacks from Sheldyn and Alicia. Melissa and Sarah have made this all possible with good defense and good setting.”

One area where Steed would like to see the Lady Lions perform better is handling tipped balls — opposed to spikes — on the defensive side.

“Every team that has had success against us tipped the ball,” Steed said. “I call it small ball, but it exposes our weakness to defense the tip. Those who saw us play at state know this was our weakness back then and still remains a problem with our defense today. I’m still in the process of determining a defensive scheme where we can keep our opponent from scoring so easily this way.”

As for the District 2-3A race itself, Sweetwater provided the Lady Lions with their stiffest competition last season, but new teams have emerged as threats to a Brownwood repeat.

“There just is not going to be any team that couldn’t win on any given night, and we must approach the district season with this attitude,” Steed said. “We have seen an improved Graham as compared to last year’s team, so they should be a very worthy opponent. Abilene Wylie has just finished a very loaded schedule and has beaten some very good opponents. They, too, should be very worthy opponents.

“We have seen and played Sweetwater, but all programs show improvement, so we shouldn’t count them out of the mix. Breckenridge has always been known to give every opponent great matches.”

In order for the Lady Lions to hoist another district championship when league play wraps up on Oct. 27 at Sweetwater, Steed believes consistency is the key.

“First, we must establish consistency in performance,” Steed said. “We have moments of total domination and then follow it with moments of errors. I believe many of these moments are just caused by trying almost too hard to meet the expectations placed on us by last year’s performances.

“Second, we must be able to adapt quickly to our opponent’s game plan. Most teams that are successful against us are playing small ball. We must be able to recognize and shift into a prevent type defense. Third, as a coach, I must make sure that I have all my players prepared, trained and in excellent condition. I believe we are there.”