Adversity can bring a team together.
The Woodlands coach Terri Wade remembers her now-seniors as freshman. Her group dominated and were a heralded bunch. They were the next big thing in H-Town volleyball.
The road to the State Final Four has proven to be a bumpy one, but now the Highlanders (43-9; 15-1) are on the cusp of becoming the story of the year. Why?
As freshman, Claire Dewine and Julieta Valdes dominated the outside, pounding balls to the floor well beyond their years.
Shockingly, Valdes would suffer a heart-attack while working out with her sister after her freshman season. She survived, but her volleyball career was over and is now the Highlander manager.
The All-State Dewine transferred to The Woodlands Christian Academy for her sophomore year, before coming back to The Woodlands as a junior. The Colgate-commit would lose her father to cancer before the beginning of the season, which has been a rallying cry for her and her team.
Makenzie Weddel would fall to an autoimmune condition called dermatomyositis as an underclassman. The senior has battled her way back to play as a senior.
Margorie Johnson was out for a month with a concussion sustained in an early-season tournament.
“When this group came in freshman, I imagined this would happen (going to State). Maybe even a couple of times,” coach Terri Wade said. “It makes me really happy and proud to have seen the struggles these girls have gone through and persevere.
“It’s fun to see them all together.”
The constant has been libero Molly Tuozzo, who has signed with the University of Kentucky.
“We had our banquet last night where everyone says some words about the seniors,” Wade said. “Everyone talked about Molly’s leadership, her hard work, her competitiveness. She has been that heartbeat of the program for several years.”
When Dewine came back to the Highlander program as a junior, she has led the offensive attack as bona fide go-to-girl.
“She’s got that fire,” Wade said. “She’s the first to speak and when she speaks, our kids listen. She gets us going and our team looks to her for that. She confirms that we should be here.”
The way the Highlanders play, it’s a team effort. They are all connected. They are defensive-oriented team with a solid offense. It takes everyone.
“It’s hard being a middle blocker, but Margorie is so smart and plays the position so well that it makes us a well-balanced team,” Wade said. “I tell Olivia [Chojnacki] that she’d be the first I’d take to battle with me. She demolishes her body… as a setter. She’s gonna get every single ball and makes great decisions. Ella Lewis has been great on the outside as a sophomore and Molly completely intimidates other teams with her powerful serve (45 MPH).
“When Makenzie is on, she makes such a different on our offense. And Julieta… she has been so encouraging and meant so much to our program as the manager.”
On deck are the powerful Dripping Springs Tigers (41-13; 14-2) in the State Semis, led by a trio offensive stars in Mackenzie Plante, Natalie Arnold and sophomore Ashley Euston.
“We’ve played a lot of teams with strong outsides and Dripping Springs is definitely that,” Wade said. “We try and get them out of their system with great defense and our serve.”
For Wade, this team has a different look in their eyes. She led the Highlanders to the State Semis in 2017, but could this team be the squad to bring home a State title for the first time since 2014?
“Our girls are confident, but not over-confident,” she said. “They don’t just want to be at State, they want to win it. They are super-competitive as a group and very determined and that gets me fired up.”