Coming off back-to-back trips to the state tournament in 2018 and 2019, Ridge Point volleyball players were bothered, annoyed and downright insulted last season by something they hadn't heard in a while.
Silence. Sheer quiet.
It was practically deafening to the Panthers, who weren't being talked about, were apparently yesterday's news, and were seemingly dismissed as irrelevant as they scuttled about through a 15-8 2020 season that ended abruptly in the first round of the playoffs.
All in all, a down year, by their high standards.
"After the season we had last year, even though we were somewhat successful, it wasn't what we wanted it to be, whether because of COVID or our record or the way we played," coach Lauryn Bailey said. "We had a goal last year of getting back to state, and we couldn't pull it off. Our girls took it personally that people forgot about us.
"So, we wanted to come in and really make a difference. Last year, we kind of got put on the backburner. We made it a point to kind of come in and shock people when we can. Their motivation is to come out and win."
Revenge, to paraphrase the saying, can be something.
Ridge Point bottled the fuel from the distaste of last season and rolled off to a thoroughly dominant start to this season, with 11 wins in its first 12 games. Nine of those wins have been sweeps, as the Panthers have won 25 of 30 sets and beaten quality teams like Bridgeland, Shadow Creek, Manvel, Clear Springs, Pearland, and Tompkins.
"For us, right now, I think we want it more than everyone else," junior outside hitter Sydney Jordan said. "We're super athletic, we're super talented. But what's ultimately pushing us towards the end of games is our love for each other and will to win."
The 6-foot-3 Jordan has been a central figure in Ridge Point's return to the top, showing off improved shot selection, better ball control and stronger defense. She leads the team with 3.1 kills per set to go with 150 digs, 24 blocks and 10 aces.
"I'm definitely becoming a smarter player," Jordan said. "That's been my biggest growth so far."
Other key players are the usual suspects in seniors Nina Moorer (two kills per set, 29 blocks, 55 assists), Alexis Roberson (two kills per set, a team-best 56 blocks) and Nylah Raspberry (9.4 digs per set).
But the difference-maker for the Panthers, aside from a collective mindset of redemption, is a fresh injection of talent, like freshman Kennedi Rogers (13 kills and 39 digs in 15 sets) and senior Kayla Wilson (1.2 kills per set, 17 blocks, 13 digs), a transfer from Shadow Creek.
"We have great new pieces that are pushing us every day in the gym," Jordan said. "It's showing more in our play and our games."
Because of a more talented, balanced team from top to bottom, Bailey said practices are more competitive.
"We're actually able to play six-on-six and make subs and actually get better when we play each other, rather than have a dominant side versus a not-dominant side," Bailey said.
Even with the newcomers, junior Arissa Smith said this year's Panthers is probably the closest team she's been on. Bailey said she's able to make subs and changes without upsetting players, because no one is putting themselves first and everyone has the same goal: win.
"Last year, we had a lot of cliques, and we didn't mesh," Smith said. "This year we have more of a camaraderie."
.@RP_Volleyball junior Arissa Smith talks about the team’s 11-1 start to the season after sweeping Tompkins tonight. #txhsvb @RPHS_Panthers @FBISDAthletics @FortBendISD @GHVCA pic.twitter.com/4Z256aQX1x— VYPE Houston (@vypehouston) August 21, 2021
Coming into this season, the players agreed on a team motto: "#defytheodds." It's plastered all over the team's social media. They felt disrespected last season. Overlooked and underrated. Forgotten.
They took that to heart.
And that has established a foundation that could result in yet another special season.
"I have so much faith in our team. I knew we could go out and shock the world," Jordan said. "No one expected anything out of us this season. We had a little bit of a rough season last year. But we're back in it, and we're in it to win it."