There were plenty of changes for the Friendswood Lady Mustangs’ squad, but, helmed by 2018 all-county volleyball coach of the year Sarah Paulk, the team was once again an undefeated district champion and further restored the program’s long held status of perennial state tournament contender.
The Lady Mustangs lost five starters from last season’s team that went 14-0 in District 24-6A and reached the third round of the Region III-6A playoffs, meaning this season’s team needed several players short on experience step up — including sophomore Ashlyn Svoboda as their kills leader at outside hitter and freshman Kate Bueche as the top defender at libero.
“Kate, our freshman, she had never played libero, she’s an outside,” Paulk said. “That was definitely a huge adjustment, she was playing in junior high last year. She did a really good job, and we worked some younger kids into big roles. We improved with each game, so that’s all you can ask for.”
It was a trial by fire for the young Friendswood team, as the Lady Mustangs, which dropped to Class 5A this season, embarked on a rugged non-district schedule that saw them go toe-to-toe with several larger teams and resulted a meager 14-14 record by the time the district schedule arrived.
“We knew we had some talented kids, they just didn’t have a lot of experience,” Paulk said. “With only a couple of girls returning, we took some bumps in preseason. We lost some pretty bad games and lost some really close games, but we just continued to push and continued to stay consistent as a coaching staff. We really worked on getting the girls comfortable playing together, finding the right lineup.”
But, all the hard lessons learned in pre-district play clearly strengthened the team. Paulk said that fact wasn’t clear to see at the close of the non-district matches, but it became evident in the Lady Mustangs’ second district match as they handily defeated a very good Santa Fe side.
“Right before district started, we played (Pearland) Dawson, and we did not perform well; it was definitely one of our lower points of the season,” Paulk said. “I couldn’t really put my finger on it, because when these kids turn the switch, they’re really good. But then, right at the beginning of district, we played Santa Fe (at home). It was a huge game, there were a ton of people here, the atmosphere was awesome, and the kids really performed.
“I think that was a really big turning point — for them to see where they could be and then just continuing to work all throughout the rest of district,” Paulk added.
Friendswood finished the District 22-5A slate at a perfect 14-0 record and then embarked on its postseason journey. The Lady Mustangs swept their first three playoff matches to book the program’s first trip to a regional tournament since 2013.
“Once we got to the playoffs, we were, thankfully, clicking and peaking at the right time,” Paulk said.
The Lady Mustangs showed their resolve as their first five-set match of the season came in the regional semifinals, but they were able to fend off a scrappy Leander Rouse team to reach the Region III-5A championship match.
“Getting to the regional tournament was always our goal, but it’s hard to do, and it’s kind of intimidating once you do get there,” Paulk said. “For us to make it to the regional finals with such a young team definitely pleasantly surprised us.”
The next day, Friendswood dropped a hard-fought four-setter against eventual Class 5A state champion Kingwood Park, but the Lady Mustangs’ status as one of best in their classification in the state was restored in full order.
“In my previous experiences, I’ve always said that last game has always kind of left a bad taste, but this year, even though you always want to win, I felt like we got to a really good point and competed really hard and left it all out there,” Paulk said.
Paulk just finished her third season leading the Lady Mustangs’ volleyball program, and was the head coach at Manvel for the three years prior to coming to Friendswood. Overall, Paulk has been coaching the sport for 13 years, and has qualified her teams for the playoffs in all six of her seasons as a head coach.
Suiting up as an all-around outside hitter during her own playing days at Pearland High School, Paulk said that experience as a player definitely shapes her present approach to coaching.
“The longer I do this, I feel like I get a little bit better at being more well-rounded, but I always tell the outside hitters, ‘I’m probably going to coach you harder than anybody, because that’s what I know,’” Paulk said. “I want to find the all-around, six-rotation player. I love outsides that can play the pass and do everything.”
With four returning starters, Paulk is already looking forward to what next season might bring — particularly, possibly an even deeper playoff run all the way to state.
“I’m really excited for August,” Paulk said. “We were so close, and we have a really good core coming back. We’re going to have to work hard to replace the other girls, but it’s nice to know you have two all-state kids coming back and an all-star kid. So, it’s highly encouraging, and I hope that it makes them hungrier.”