WALNUT - Beginning on Saturday, the Walnut Lady Wildcats will start their second season competing in volleyball when they travel to play in the Pontotoc Classic against Mantachie and Itawamba AHS. With the season right around the corner, the excitement for the second go-around is palpable.
"The excitement level is extremely high because it is our second season and we finished on such a great note in our first season," said Walnut head coach Kelley Hopper. "It has carried over into our second season. The girls, myself and Coach (Brian) Quinn are all excited to play and to prove that we have improved."
The Lady Wildcats went 6-4 in their inaugural season a year ago. Throughout the course of the season, Walnut dealt with the typical ups and downs of a team on a steep learning curve. Entering year two, there is still much to learn but the players have really grown into what it means to be a volleyball player.
"There has been an increase in communication," Hopper claimed on the growth from the program's inception. "There has been accountability. They hold each other accountable, where last year they didn't know how to do that and this year they know.
"I think there is a growth in expectation. Obviously, I have grown in what I expect to see from them but I believe they have grown in their expectation in what they can accomplish. They know they can do more than what they did last year."
In their first season, every game for Walnut was simply about getting better. The wins and losses were charted but were meaningless with the Lady Wildcats not in a division and fighting for a playoff spot. This season, Walnut will jump into Class 1-Region 2 play with Ingomar, East Union, H.W. Byers, Pine Grove, Hickory Flat, Holly Springs and Potts Camp. The division is split down the middle with four teams that have played volleyball for at least one season and four programs who are beginning their first seasons. With the chance to compete in the postseason, the Lady Wildcats will look to do more than just get better but they will have to stack wins to reach the playoffs.
"There is definitely an excitement that we get a chance to play in a division and a chance of playoffs," Hopper stated. "We are excited to get this opportunity and I think it shines through their effort. They have worked really hard this offseason, knowing that we are working on not just getting better but towards something more. I think they have done a good job of picking up the pace on that.
"We are fully aware that first-year teams doesn't mean anything except that they are a first-year team. It doesn't mean that they don't show up with athletes that are able to play. We saw that last year with other first-year teams so that doesn't mean anything to us. We have to make sure we are prepared every game."
Much of that preparation has been done over the summer with practices and workouts. The Lady Wildcats did not scrimmage other teams over the summer but still used their time to practice and dedicate themselves to the weight room. Their work in lifting weights has transformed their bodies while also making them more effective on the court.
"I think it's been wonderful, the focus on girl athletics as a whole," said Hopper. "I think our girls have benefited the most because there has been a focus on making them stronger, building stamina and mental toughness. I think across the board we have gotten stronger mentally and physically and they have bought into it. They've seen the results and really pushed themselves."
Walnut will face Mantachie at 9 a.m. on Saturday at Pontotoc High School and will play IAHS following their match against the Lady Mustangs.