In the past three seasons as head coach of the Odessa College volleyball team, Kristi Gray says she typically has an even mix of returners and newcomers.
The 2019 version of the Lady Wranglers will have a slightly different look with 11 total newcomers, including two transfers from Panola College.
"We're a very young team," Gray said. "In the past couple of years, we've been a little older. This is probably the youngest team that we've had in the past three or four years."
With more youth Gray says she'll rely on even more on the three returners from last year's team that finished 21-10. One of those coming back is setter Summer Ah Choy. The sophomore from Hilo, Hawaii played in all 31 matches for the Lady Wranglers and was among the team leaders in digs (222).
"I can feel myself taking on that kind of a leadership role," Ah Choy said. "We've been working on connecting with each other and our mental focus as well."
Ah Choy is also one of four Lady Wranglers on this year's team that call the Aloha State home. On top of that, there are four more student-athletes from Brazil on this year's roster. Considering how far both Hawaii and Brazil are from Odessa, having those connections are even more important.
"The girls on the team from Hawaii look up to me since I'm the oldest one," Ah Choy said. "With the other players from Brazil, I just try to help them with the language and understanding what Coach Kristi is trying to tell us."
Ah Choy embraced a mentorship role even before the Lady Wranglers play their first match and that's something that Gray knows that she will have to take on.
"Being a sophomore and a setter, we expect her to be a leader and she has done a great job of doing that," Gray said. "All of our sophomores have come in wanting to succeed and are trying to teach the freshman the way.
"My expectations are for them to be those leaders because they didn't have as much of that last year."
"I do see myself taking on that role," said Parrish, who was an All-Conference selection in the Western Junior College Athletic Conference last year. "As we get into more practices with each other, I can see that team chemistry start to come along as well."
Team chemistry has been a point of emphasis for Gray during the first couple of weeks of practice. She is trying to achieve that with more team bonding and has been pleased so far with the team's progress.
"This is a different group," Gray said. "I think we're deeper with athleticism in our roster and this has been a good group of girls as far as personalities go. They are a very caring group."
The Lady Wranglers, particularly the returners, have been trying to take that message to heart. They understand that the success of the season hinges on how well everyone comes together.
"We've been having a lot of team bonding so we can learn to trust each other," Ah Choy said. "The more trust we have, the more confident we can be."
"For us, it's more about connection and coming together," Parrish said. "We want to make sure we live up to our motto of We Are One."
Odessa College plays two matches Friday against Pima (Ariz.) Community College and Arizona Western before facing Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College and Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College on Saturday at the NMMI Classic in Roswell, N.M.
With that in mind, Gray wants to see how that mix of leadership and youth blend with each other.
"We really want them to work on that connection," Gray said. "They are new to each other and have only been playing together for a couple of weeks so building that connection and mental toughness are going to be the biggest things we need to work on these first couple of weeks."
Article & Photo by Tony Venegas: Odessa American