When searching for proof that this year’s Vista Ridge volleyball team is the same one that won only six matches last fall, look to the handshakes.

Between sets and after crucial points, each pair of teammates has a different way of greeting one another. There are high-fives and chest bumps and floor slaps and loud yells.

“It’s a bond,” senior outside hitter Skylar Warde said of the ritual that’s developed over the past several seasons. “It’s not just a handshake or being silly. It’s with those people that you know you can go to during a game, or if you’re having a bad day even.”

If the handshakes have a little more zest to them this year, it’s for good reason. The Rangers have started the season 18-11 overall and remain as one of three unbeaten teams in District 13-6A competition. This from a team that went 6-35 in 2017.

Coach Holly Lamb said she sensed something might be different during the offseason, as increased roster depth led to more intense practices and new players pushing for playing time.

The proof came at the Austin ISD Jason Landers Invitational, where Vista Ridge knocked off Arlington Lamar and Midlothian in pool play before making it all the way to the championship match.

The Rangers were almost in disbelief leading up to the final against Copperas Cove.

“I’m telling them, ‘We made it work. We did it ourselves,’ ” said Warde, a talented outside hitter who is committed to Texas A&M International.

Despite a straight-set loss that snapped a string of nine wins to start the season, Vista Ridge has continued to prove the tournament wasn’t a fluke.

“We didn’t know how good we were before,” senior setter Hannah Lerma said. “Now we can see all the potential, and we can see what we can really do.”

Lerma and Warde are the most experienced players on the roster, and the team that’s built around them is unlike any Lamb has had in years. All 13 varsity players — a mix that includes freshman middle blocker Katelyn Krienke and a quartet of sophomores — are fighting to crack the starting lineup each week.

“You have to earn your spot, so we all are fighting for one position,” said Geneva Nedrow, a sophomore who has been starting at libero.

Lamb believes the intensity of that competition has carried over to matches.

“We’ve had it, but it would come in spurts,” she said. “This group seems to really thrive on that. They challenge each other in practice every day and have really taken ownership. It’s been fun to see the competitiveness come out of them.”

During their first district match at Hendrickson, the Rangers had to fight from behind to win a close second set 25-23. As they made the walk to the opposite bench before the third frame, the handshake line began to form.

The stakes may be higher this year, but the bonds haven’t gone anywhere. It’s still the same Vista Ridge, just a better version.

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