Twelve months ago, few — if any — outside the Brownwood Lady Lions volleyball program expected an appearance in the Class 3A state championship game. And though some of the faces of this year’s edition of Lady Lions may be different, the goal to return to San Marcos and complete their state championship dream is just as strong.

Ranked No. 2 in the state in the Texas Girls Coaches Association preseason volleyball poll, the defending Class 3A state finalist Lady Lions — who return four members of last year’s 33-10 squad — open their season Friday and Saturday with their annual trip to the Abilene Bev Ball Classic.

“When you work with highly motivated and intelligent athletes as I do, you know that they are carrying with them the ultimate memory and experience of a lifetime for a high school athlete,” said Lady Lions head coach Mary Steed, who has led Brownwood to five consecutive postseason appearances. “The ‘Cinderella story,’ such as ours, is something to be treasured and is a testament to their work, character and belief.

“However, the girls realize that the state team is gone with the loss of nine athletes, but they also know that a state championship can be won with a different look, a different team, a different approach to how to score and how to win. The old saying ‘something is lost but something is gained’ is certainly true with this team.”

All four returnees for the Lady Lions are seniors — Texas Sportswriters Association second-team all-state selection Julie Kennedy, Chloe Geye, Sheldyn Miller and Courtney Murray — and welcome the challenge of finishing what Brownwood started last fall.

“There is no doubt that Julie and Chloe are seasoned and amazingly talented athletes who have experienced the ultimate pressure and stress that comes with playing in a state championship,” Steed said. “What I love most is that they have accepted the challenge of trying to lead this team and are working harder to show this by example. Sheldyn and Courtney have accepted their challenge of trying to fill the positions vacated by some very good athletes. All four of these returning athletes saw what caused last year’s team to fall short of the championship win and are committed to overcoming those weaknesses.”

As for their roles on the floor, some are the same for the seniors, while others are adapting to new positions.

“Julie will stay in the left front hitting position and the center back defense position,” Steed said. “Chloe will be accepting the new challenge of hitting in the left front position and concentrating on the center back defensive position. Sheldyn will be playing the middle hitting position and the left back defensive position, while Courtney will be our libero this year.”

Newcomers to the Lady Lion roster include juniors Alicia Castillo and Shelbie Harry, along with sophomores Kelsey Gober, Sarah Underwood, Melissa Rmeili and Hadley Lindley.

“The beauty of having so many newcomers to the team is it causes the team to have a completely different personality, character and look,” Steed said. “Consequently, there is no need to try and fill the shoes of lost athletes, you just build on the strengths that the new ones bring. We will just learn how to score, play and win in a different way. Championships can be won in many different ways and we are committed to finding the new way.”

In a change from recent years, Lady Lion fans will have more opportunities to see the team play prior to the start of the District 2-3A race. Brownwood has five home non-district matches scheduled, highlighted by back-to-back showdowns with 2007 Class 4A state champion and former district rival Hewitt Midway (Sept. 8), and No. 5 Fredericksburg (Sept. 11) in a Region I-3A championship rematch. Brownwood’s first home game is slated for Aug. 25 against Lampasas.

When district play arrives on Sept. 25 against Snyder, the reigning 2-3A champions — who went undefeated in league play in 2008 — realize they will be the hunted. Like a wild dingo in the Australian Outback, Brownwood’s 2-3A rivals will be hoping to prey upon the new-look Lady Lions in 2009. But Brownwood plans to do much more than simply repeat as District 2-3A champions.

“This team has no intentions of relinquishing the district title to any other team in our district,” Steed said. “We still believe we are second to no one. With that said, our long term expectation is to return to the state finals. These athletes are not putting in these long, grueling hours just to be competitive. They are working, training and playing to be the champions they expect to be, period.”