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."
Katy senior outside hitter Chandler Lee hates when someone tells her she can't do something. It particularly flusters her when they say it regarding anything on the volleyball court.
"One thing that really motivates me is people who don't believe in me," Lee said. "I've had many bad coaches tell me that I can't do something or be someone."
During her freshman year at Fulshear High, Lee had one of those coaches.
"She was very discouraging," Lee said. "She told me I wouldn't make it big. She compared me to other players and said I wasn't as good and that I wasn't on their level and couldn't compete with them. That pushed me to go big. I feel like if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be where I'm at right now. She brought something out of me that I didn't even know I had. Because I didn't think I was going to go (NCAA) DI."
Lee set out to prove herself right and prove the coach wrong. She transferred to Katy Taylor for a couple of years before settling at Katy during the spring when her family moved to the area. Lee is a gifted athlete—she can touch a 10-foot basketball rim—and has enjoyed a great start to this season, compiling a team-best 2.4 kills per set with 130 digs and 24 blocks.
The work, persistence and resiliency paid off when Lee announced Sept. 9 that she was verbally committing to the University of New Orleans of the Southland Conference. When talking about how far she had come, Lee reflected on that game-changing freshman year.
"When it all happened, my mom said I could either let (the coach) win and quit now, or I could show her who's boss and prove her wrong," Lee said. "It took a bit, but I do feel like I really did push through. I never want a coach to think they took something out of me."
Lee is one of four Katy volleyball players who have verbally committed to continue their careers at the NCAA Division I level in Louisiana. Maddie Waak (LSU), Jordan Gamble (Northwestern State) and Izzy Denton (Southeastern) are the others.
Katy senior Chandler Lee.Bradley Collier | VYPE Media
Lee, who chose New Orleans over the University of Portland, New Mexico State and University of Texas-El Paso, talked more with VYPE.
VYPE: Why was New Orleans the right fit and the best place to continue your volleyball career?
LEE: I liked the coach and they offered me a full ride playing six rotations. If I didn't take it, I felt like it would have been a missed opportunity. The coach and I clicked. They were eager to offer me; on our first call, they were already talking about offering me and sending me on a visit. They really wanted me. I also want to go to school for broadcasting and communications, and the University of New Orleans has a good program for that. It all worked out.
VYPE: When did you start playing volleyball?
LEE: In the sixth grade. I was 12. My first sport was gymnastics, so it was easy for me to transition. Gymnastics really helped as far as my vertical. But I really wanted to play a contact sport that involved a ball. Eventually, I got too tall for gymnastics. My mom had played volleyball, and she thought I'd be a great volleyball player, too. But it wasn't my first idea. My first thought was doing basketball, but that didn't turn out too well. It was too much contact. Too much pushing and shoving. So, I found volleyball, which was perfect.
VYPE: Obviously you're a natural athlete. You're a talented hitter. What else about volleyball comes naturally to you?
LEE: I feel like people know I hit hard, but they also don't see that I'm also smart at placing the ball. I prefer to place the ball in a great spot instead of just hitting it hard. If you just have a lot of power but don't know how to find the open spots on the court, then you really don't have much.
VYPE: What is something a lot of people don't know about you, or something that might be misunderstood?
LEE: People think I'm a mean person based on my facial expressions on the court, but once you actually get to know me, I'm a nice and friendly and funny person. I'm not mean. I have a relaxed resting face, I guess, and when I'm serious, I can be really serious and it can come off as mean, but I'm actually very nice and friendly.
VYPE: What is it like at Katy and playing on a team that is on a roll (six wins in the last seven games) and has such high expectations, with the potential to meet those standards?
LEE: I do believe we can win state. We all have our own abilities, and it makes us a complete team. We're all versatile players and can all play different positions. It makes us great. If we keep working hard, we can win district and make it far in the playoffs again, just as they did last year. We all have the talent, which is one thing I like about Katy.
VYPE: For you personally, what would make your senior volleyball season a success?
LEE: I've gotten all the awards and honors, first team all-district and all that, so I just want to be remembered and be known as someone who came to Katy and helped the team win. I want to have a good legacy.