The Woodland volleyball program lost three key pieces from its 2018 team — two to graduation and one to transfer — but the Wildcats have a large group of seniors who could potentially make 2019 a season to remember.
While giving time on the court to younger, less experienced players could pay dividends down the road, Woodland head coach David Condon said he's going to pick his spots. He's got a talented main rotation and wants those players to build as much cohesion as they can.
"We're really focusing on building our core nucleus and trying to get them as good as possible," Condon said. "We'll try to get those [younger players] in when I can. It's one of those things where I have a lot of seniors and some really strong juniors. ... Next year, we'll have some younger players that we'll have to deal with, but this year, we have a lot of experience."
With a group of seniors headlined by Caroline Gore, who led the 2018 Wildcats in kills en route to a spot on the Daily Tribune News all-county team, Condon believes his team has logged enough matches together to start the season off well.
Replacing Noelle Dickey, Emmaline Payne and Macey Vaughn — each of whom garnered all-county honorable-mention selection last year — won't be easy, but Condon believes his returning players have learned what it takes to be successful.
"I think pretty much all of our girls are going to be ready to play," Condon said. "I don't think there's any issue with that, because they're all experienced. We're returning several seniors and several juniors, so that's not going to be an issue.
"Our only issue is pretty much adjusting our rotation to where we have different people setting than what we had last year because of the transfer. ... It's just about getting them to where they're improving all season like they need to be."
That was the main issue for the Wildcats last year. Yes, the team was technically better in October than in August, but the rate of improvement didn't increase as much as some other teams.
Near the end of August, Woodland held an 8-6 record with four of those defeats coming in three-set matches. It was a more than solid start to the season, but when adversity hit, the Wildcats scrambled to respond.
"A lot of it ultimately falls on me as a coach, I have to keep pushing them and reiterating how important it is to continually get better," Condon said. "It's more important to do that than to get off to a hot start and then kind of stagnate."
Aside from winning four out of five matches at one point in late September, Woodland failed to recapture the success it enjoyed through the season's first two weeks. Condon hopes that serves as a lesson to this year's group, especially since a vast majority of them faced those struggles firsthand.
"I think some of it was attributed to experience, starting a bunch of sophomores," Condon said. "With that learning experience, the girls understand that it's great to get off to a good start, but you have to continually get better as the season progresses. ... It's going to be a point of emphasis for us as we start doing some goal-setting and working towards improving this season, too."
It's paramount for a team to have good leadership if it wants to overcome rough patches. Having a great coach can only do so much. At some point, the players need to step up.
Condon said he's seen that this summer out of junior Sydney Molinaro — an all-county honoree and an undeniable candidate for best all-around athlete in the area.
"You always want these girls to end up teaching these players and almost coaching, to an extent, on the court," Condon said. "It's almost like having a second or third coach for you whenever they're out there, and she's already stepped into that role. She's doing it better than I thought she was going to. I'm extremely pleased with that."
Molinaro's teammates being able to take that kind of input from a fellow player is just one example of how tight-knit this year's squad seems to be. And Condon knows that a team that genuinely enjoys playing for each other will always have an edge over one with infighting.
"I feel really good about the chemistry with the team," Condon said. "That is enormously important. I've had teams in the past where talent-wise, we were pretty good, but we had two girls who just didn't like each other, didn't get along and they would be two of our best players. That hurts you, because there's times where they let that get in the way of performing as well as they should.
"I think we've underachieved in some past seasons because of stuff like that. I haven't seen any of that so far this year, which makes me even more optimistic about the season."
Woodland will open its 2019 campaign Saturday in the Welcome to the Jungle tournament at Adairsville. It's been a moment the Wildcats have been looking forward to the past several weeks.
"They know that this hopefully, potentially, could be a pretty dang good year for our school and our program," Condon said of his players. "With them knowing that, they still have to buy into the fact that you still have to work towards improving every single practice, every single match, all the time. The excitement and anticipation is there. The girls are pretty anxious to get playing."