Long before the start of the high school volleyball season, even before preseason training in early August, Tompkins players would joke around with each other about how good they expected to be this season. How dominant they'd be.
Typical stuff for any high school athlete, when optimism, hope and great expectations fulfill the dog days of summer strength and conditioning camps.
"But we were just messing around. It wasn't serious," junior outside hitter Cindy Tchouangwa said. "We knew good players had left and we knew we'd have our work cut out for us."
But as the season began, against a hellacious non-district schedule, the wins started mounting. Six straight right out of the gate. Senior outside hitter/defensive specialist Paris Herrman and Tchouangwa putting up ridiculous numbers, lighting up stat sheets. Eleven wins in the last 11 games.
And a close-knit team coming together quicker than anyone anticipated, particularly after senior libero Madison Gundry had suffered a season-ending injury during the summer.
"Our chemistry is right on," Herrman said. "We started off super young all together on varsity, freshmen and sophomores together, and now we're all juniors and seniors. We were ready for this."
And the Falcons have proven it, the latest showcase a demonstrative 3-0 sweep of rival Katy (27-25, 25-18, 25-23) on Wednesday to go to 2-0 in District 19-6A and 22-5 overall, including wins over Pearland Dawson, Clear Springs, College Park, Cinco Ranch (twice), Bridgeland (twice) and George Ranch.
"I'm really not surprised," said Herrman, the anchor of a deep, versatile team with 3.1 kills per set, 4.6 digs per set and 35 aces. "We've put so much work into this and have so much talent, so I'm really glad we're living up to it."
Against Katy (18-14, 1-1), Tompkins put together an impressive performance, at times completely overwhelming a stacked and experienced Tigers team that has five NCAA Division I commits.
Herrman got the Falcons past the Tigers in an intense first set, compiling five kills. She knew to avoid Katy's talented senior libero Izzy Denton and swung away from her, otherwise expertly finding vulnerabilities in the Tigers' defense.
.@parisherrman caps off the second set with her 12th kill of the game for a 25-18 @OTHSVolleyball win and a 2-0 lea… https://t.co/bbGuA9Ml3w— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)1631750788.0
In each of the second and third sets, Tompkins jumped out to 14-5 leads but watched as Katy, behind the swings of senior middle Jordan Gamble and senior outside hitter Chandler Lee, fought back and gave a scare each time, even taking a 22-21 lead in the third set.
But the Falcons' depth offensively was too much. If it wasn't Herrman (15 kills, three aces) or Tchouangwa (12 kills) scoring points with smart power hitting, it was junior Tendai Titley (eight kills, three blocks), senior Natassia Baptiste (five kills) or junior Kaitlin Lopez (four kills) finding openings.
"They're fiery. They're hungry," Tompkins coach Allison Merrell said of her girls. "Katy always gives us a run for our money, so they knew they were going to have to come out hard early. We were shaky in the first set, but settled in, got some nerves out of the way and played our tempo and our game."
Herrman, a four-year letterman, has always been a leader of Tompkins' success. She's even better this season as an all-around player, picking up slack in the back row due to Gundry's absence.
"Her passing, defensively, in serve-receive … she's improved so much since junior year," Merrell said. "She has more confidence back there, and I have more confidence in her back there. She's a rock star in the back row for us right now."
But it's the emergence of Tchouangwa that has been a game-changer for the Falcons' offense. Tchouangwa is averaging a team-best 4.2 kills per set and boasts an incredible .492 kill percentage; last season, those numbers were 3.1 and .397, respectively.
.@OTHSVolleyball’s @CTchouangwa with the rocket of a swing. She’s already got four kills in this second set. Tompki… https://t.co/q9AclP1OEu— Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)1631749874.0
Merrell said Tchouangwa's outstanding play is a result of natural growth. She's an upperclassman now and the team needs more from her. She's answering the call.
"It's my mentality," Tchouangwa said. "I'm sharper. I'm more focused on the court. I'm a better passer. I just want to get the job done."
Schematically, to better suit all the talent, Merrell has implemented more attacks from the back row, to accommodate Herrman, and a faster offense.
"We have the talent, for sure, but when we all get into a rhythm, we're unstoppable," Herrman said. "We have so many weapons, and if we can get a good serve-receive pass with our steady defense, the sky is the limit for our offense."
Perhaps it was no joke after all, then, when the Falcons would talk amongst one another about how good they would be.
"They make adjustments on the fly, they stick to game-plans. There's a lot of accountability with this group," Merrell said. "I also think they know how talented they are. That excites them to work hard."
AFTER TWO YEARS AT RANCHO CUCAMONGA HIGH SCHOOL IN CALIFORNIA, DYLAN HOSKINS IS BACK HOME.
After playing varsity volleyball at George Ranch as a freshman before moving west, the senior outside hitter/libero is back with the Longhorns for her senior season.
"It feels good," Hoskins said. "I've been in this community since I was born. I've known these people since I was five. I feel like I have one last chance to do something special with these girls.
"For some reason, every four years we're really good. Our freshman year, we made it to round five. When we were sixth graders, they made it to State. So, this is the fourth year, and I'm hoping that pattern continues and we make it far."
Hoskins will play outside hitter for a stacked Longhorns club that has aspirations of a deep playoff run. She brings a veteran's poise and a calming perspective that eases teammates.
"I have this presence on the court where it's relaxed but it's still fun," Hoskins said. "I'm not somebody that gets stressed out easily, and that's a good thing because pressure in games is a real thing. I know things get bad when we start to put pressure on ourselves. If I can make everybody understand that it's just a game, that's when we'll play our best."
Hoskins has played volleyball since she was 11 years old. She was forced into it. A shortstop in softball, her parents thought her athleticism would be better suited for the court.
"I thought it was stupid," Hoskins said. "I thought it was a boring game. I thought it was for girly-girls. But getting hit
in the face occasionally, it's anything but. I ended up falling in love with it. Now I'm like 'ew, softball'. It's all about volleyball."
It worked out for Hoskins, for her parents and for George Ranch.
Admittedly a "crazy" person who embraces randomity — "You'll hear someone yell 'Hot dogs!' across the gym, and that'll be me," Hoskins said. "I'm weird. I know I am."— Hoskins can get serious when need be. Like, this season.
"As seniors, we set the expectations," Hoskins said. "The younger girls follow our lead, so it's on us to put our best foot forward. We want it to be fun, but serious environment. We do want to go far."
3 Things to Watch: George Ranch
ALL IN FOR 10: George Ranch has made the playoffs nine consecutive seasons.
FRESHMAN STAR: The Longhorns have a stud freshman in Sydney Bryant who is likely to make an immediate impact. The athletic middle and Harry Potter fan gives George Ranch another dominant attacker thanks to a powerful right arm.
SENIOR STAR TRIO: George Ranch is the home of future college stars. Seniors Logan Lednicky (Texas A&M), Avery Shimaitis (Pepperdine) and Allie Szcech (Baylor) are all committed to play at the next level.