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Lady Panthers culture shift builds playoff belief

by | Aug 5, 2023 | Sports

With returning varsity talent and a strong finish to the 2022 season, Plano East volleyball is optimistic for the new season.

Head coach Sarah Perez brought new energy to the program last season, as the Lady Panthers won seven games in the competitive District 6-6A. With a year under her belt leading this program, she believes the team is capable of so much more.

“I’m most excited about the fact this year is that the team is bought into what we’re trying to do,” Perez said. “I’ve coached this team for a year now and they feel excited to play daily. They’re 100 percent committed to that goal about playing in November and making the playoffs.”

The Lady Panthers have struggled to stay competitive on the volleyball court over the last few years, something that brought the morale of the program down for a long time. Facing a district that featured some of the best teams in the entire state, it was difficult to get over that hump and try and establish a winning culture. After one year, coach Perez believes she saw that change toward the end of 2022.

“I really believe they’re bought in,” Perez said. “Talking to some of the varsity players about last season, they felt like they bought in one game too late, and we were one game from a playoff spot. They didn’t believe until midseason, but now there’s a whole new energy and drive to succeed. I believe this is our year.”

Now with the culture in place and plenty of returning talent, Plano East believes the playoffs are within reach in 2023. The team won its final two games last season, finishing the district schedule 7-7 overall.

“We have to keep the momentum going and tweaking the small things,” Perez said. “We have to stay disciplined in all aspects and play on our strengths. One serve here or a bad receive ball there, and that’s the difference between winning and losing close matches. It all comes down to how we perform at those things.”

In terms of returning talent, Plano East will be led by an impressive front row with Ashby Daniel and Lolo Lambert. Daniel is a returning middle hitter who led the Lady Panthers in blocks and was among the top attacking players last season. Committed to the University of Alabama, Daniel has improved even further over the summer and is poised for a big year.

“Her timing, movement and reach is a lot better,” Perez said. “Her blocking was good last year, but she’s honed that skill and is good at reading the opposing team and making plays.”

Lambert is a transfer student from Bishop Lynch, where she was the offensive MVP the last two seasons. She finished last season with 485 kills on one of the top teams in the area.

Plano East will also have the returning talents of Simone Heard, who had over 150 kills and digs as a freshman last season, along with the team’s top two setters last season – Megan Nguyen and Sophia Qureshi. That group of players gives Plano East a lot of attacking talent in the new year, and the team has preached defense to help them out.

“Our skill sets are so offensive, it’s going to come down to defense and passing,” Perez said. “We’re working hard on defense and serve receive, because if we do that well, we’ve got great setters and great attackers that can get us points.”

Plano East’s season begins on Tuesday, Aug. 8 at home against Woodrow Wilson. The team will compete in four preseason tournaments, including Volleypalooza in Austin, before district play begins on Friday, Sep. 8 at home against Plano. As the team prepares for the opening matches of the season, the team is still finding the right pieces for the starting lineup next season.

“I just want girls to be confident in a few position groups for next season,” Perez said. “We just have to show their true skill. As we put the team together and find the right lineup, it’ll enable us to be the most successful.”

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