EARLY —Attempting to keep their momentum from the tail end of 2017, the Early High School volleyball team looks to build a foundation for years to come with its five incoming seniors.

For the first time in the history of the EHS volleyball program, the school will have a second-year coach leading the charge, which looks to have a strong start to the year after wrapping up summer league play with a victory over 4A Brownwood.

“We have five seniors total. It’s not a big senior class, but I really feel we have strong players,” Early coach Natalie Whitewood said. “… Because I had so many seniors last year, it gave them time on the JV to gel and play a bunch. Being able to move them up this year was a big advantage for us.”

Early finished 2017 with a 2-8 record in District 6-3A, riding a two-game win streak into its final game with district champion Comanche, who ended the Lady Horns’ season with a three-set loss that eliminated Early from playoff contention. Whitewood said she is excited to see what her team does on the court this year because virtually every player participated in either the offseason strength and conditioning program or summer league.

“Those two things helped us out leading up to today,” Whitewood said. “Haley Spieckerman was on JV last year, but she’ll be on varsity. She actually squatted 245 on her maximum this morning. We’re super pumped … They were all here. It’s vital. We’re going to try and work on our rotation to give us a few more options, but our main focus is finding what clicks and keeping it going. I really feel like this is the year where they finally get their first gold ball.”

With Early losing the majority of its varsity roster after six seniors graduated last spring, those vacancies leave open opportunities for the younger players to prove themselves. Throughout volleyball camp and the first few days of practice players were eager to show coaches they’re capable of competing at the varsity level.

“We have really high hopes about this year,” senior middle blocker Kacee Gober said. ”We’re really excited … It’s hard and I’m exhausted, but it’s worth it. We’re working and we’re getting better. From my freshmen year until now, our confidence is so much higher. We have so much more faith in ourselves. I feel like we’re doing a lot better than previous years.”

The Lady Horns will remain in the reshuffled District 6-3A with Breckenridge exiting for the Wichita Falls-centric District 7. Hamilton will replace the Lady Buckaroos and returns from postseason berth that ended in their first encounter with 2A state semifinalist Windthorst.

“We’re going to get a gold ball. We’re going to work for it and we’re working really hard,” Gober said. “We had some attitudes last year. This year, we made a deal that we would not have any attitudes because those bring down the team. We’ve all been having good attitudes.”

The Lady Horns open the season Tuesday in Veribest, then head to Albany for a tournament Friday before facing Zephyr in a local triangular including Lingleville.

“The summer workouts were tough, but the people who were there are so ahead of the game coming into two-a-days,” Spieckerman said. “Our bodies were ready for it because of summer workouts. The biggest thing is encouraging everyone. We all have respect for each other. The biggest thing is trust.”