HELOTES, Texas – The 2017 season was a fairy tale for the O’Connor volleyball team.

The Panthers captured the first ever regional championship in program history, knocking off top-ranked Reagan in the process, and advanced to their first state tournament. Although they lost in the 6A state semifinals to Katy Seven Lakes, O’Connor still held their heads high, posting a 45-5 overall record, the best mark in the 20-year history of Panthers volleyball.

But that was last year.

This year, O’Connor must find a way to move on. Gone are all-state standouts Allison Fields and Aspen Thompson, part of an eight-girl senior class that raised the bar for Panthers volleyball. A bar that this year’s group is aspiring to match, in their own way.

“We want to get back to where we were last year, but at the same time we understand that it’s a new year,” said senior Peyton Hummel. “We need to start over fresh from the beginning. We don’t want to look too far ahead in terms of making a deep playoff run. We’re working through early season games, learning what we have to do to compete in the district, and that’s really where we need to be right now.”

“We had a really strong JV team last year,” fellow senior Gabby De Los Santos explained. “We brought up all of the girls who worked really hard on the JV team, and so far I think we work really well together. Everyone’s working really hard to get to that point where we were last year.”

The biggest challenges facing this pack of Panthers? Height and hitting. O’Connor only has one girl above 6 feet tall on the roster, 6 foot, 1 inch senior Emmy Ogogor, and a large chunk of the team’s offense graduated. Instead, the team will hang their hat on hustle and scrappy play.

“We have an amazing defense this year,” said De Los Santos. “Our offense and blocking both need a little work, but with five straight days of games and practices, we’re doing everything we can to improve early in the season.”

And thanks to head coach Yamilet Garcia, those practices have been intense.

“Coach Garcia is on us every single day, and we’re buying into everything that she says,” Hummel said. “She preaches that every single ball is important, and I think it has shown that if we’re working really hard at practice, it shows up in the games. Every single game that we played, even the ones we lost, were within a few points, so I think that’s a great sign that we’re playing well together as a team.”

O’Connor opened district play this week, notching a 3-0 win over Holmes on Tuesday night. The Panthers overall record now stands at 10-5. They will next face Warren on Tuesday, Aug. 28 at 7 p.m.

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