During a team meeting before the start of the season, Tompkins volleyball coaches and players discussed goals.
At the top of the list was respect.
“I don’t know if people know who we are,” senior Tendai Titley said, echoing the sentiments of her peers despite a 2021 season when Tompkins went 35-6, won an undefeated championship in one of the toughest districts in the state and finished as regional quarterfinalists.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, after the Falcons earned an impressive sweep of previously undefeated New Braunfels Canyon, 3-0 (29-27, 25-23, 26-24), at Bridgeland High School to take the gold bracket championship of the prestigious 48-team Katy ISD/Cy-Fair ISD Tournament. Coach Allison Merrell directed her attention toward Titley.
“Do you want to refine that statement?” Merrell asked, recalling Titley’s preseason concern. “I think people know who you are.”
Who are the Tompkins Falcons? Well, they’re arguably the best volleyball team in the Greater Houston area through the first couple handful of games.
Tompkins is off to the best start in program history at 9-0, with signature wins over giants like Canyon, defending Class 6A state champ San Antonio Brandeis, Class 6A state semifinalist Ridge Point and perennial regional powers Seven Lakes and Cypress Ranch.
“I think we as a program have always had talented teams, but what sets this team apart is the energy and experience we bring to every match,” senior Presley Powell said. “Playing great programs early in the season has really been a testament to our success. We are a team that carries confidence and belief within ourselves, and we don’t take any team for granted.”
Tompkins is not just undefeated. It is dominating. The Falcons have lost just three of 22 sets so far this season.
“We play for each other, not for ourselves,” junior Erica Dellesky said. “This team is hungry to win. We know that if we fight for every point, we will come out on top. The sky is the limit.”
Senior Cindy Tchouangwa, a Rice commit, and Titley are the program cornerstones. Each averages more than three kills per set and is a dominant force against an opponent’s attack.
But it’s been the supporting cast that makes these Falcons a particularly tough out. Powell and Dellesky run Tompkins’ unconventional 5-1 system to perfection; Powell setting from the front row and Dellesky from the back. It allows Tchouangwa to swing as a hitting option from the right back.
Sophomore Brooklynn Merrell, a setter during the club season, made the switch to libero this year and adds a third set of hands to set out-of-system balls. Sophomores Simi Elliott and Christin Cowart, and freshman Callie Funk make for a talented, athletic three-headed monster in the middle.
(How deep is Tompkins? With Cowart and Elliott unavailable for most of tournament play this weekend, the Falcons played junior varsity middle Angel Debekeme and never skipped a beat).
But a key difference-maker has been junior Skylar Skrabanek.
The 6-foot-1 Skrabanek has a background in beach volleyball and already committed to play for Florida State, the No. 2 beach program in the country. This summer, she spent most of her time focused on her beach play for the first time and Merrell admitted she was worried about Skrabanek’s transition back to indoor.
But Skrabanek jumped right back into the groove of indoor volleyball with ease, relying on a plethora of indoor lessons right before the high school season started.
“Beach is really difficult to move in,” Skrabanek said. “You have to play in inclement weather conditions and it’s a smaller court with only two players. So, when I then go and play indoor, my vertical is higher on solid ground, there are no weather factors and I have the support of five other players and a much larger court to position the ball in.”
Skrabanek said ball control, endurance, court speed and vertical jump are better this season because of summer beach training. Merrell said Skrabanek’s reading of defenses and ability to swing in different areas of the court have improved considerably, adding a third potent attacking threat alongside Tchouangwa and Titley.
Overall, Merrell has a team that is relentless, gritty and accountable. In the decisive third set against Canyon to finish off the sweep on Saturday, the Falcons rallied from a 21-13 deficit to win 26-24.
“Whether we are up by five points or trailing by 10, we play every point like it was match point and leave it all on the court,” Skrabanek said. “I think we are undefeated because we are all playing as one and not individually. If we make an error, we let it go and just focus on the next point. Our communication on and off the court has been key.”
It’s a determined group of players.
“As a team, we have high expectations and big goals to make history for our program,” Presley said. “After doing so last year by winning the district title and making it to the third round in playoffs, we want more for ourselves by taking it to the next level.”
Merrell knew coming into this year she’d have a special team. So, she scheduled the toughest preseason schedule she ever has. Clear Springs, Pearland Dawson, Class 6A state semifinalist Bridgeland and Class 5A regional semifinalist Fulshear make up next week’s opponents before the Falcons start district play against Class 6A regional finalist Katy on Aug. 23.
Merrell has also loosened her grip. She allows the players to come up with the game plan, like they did against Brandeis. Instead of telling players what team goals are, Merrell let them determine that.
She encourages them to take initiative. It fosters accountability for a team that is “player-led” in every sense.
“It’s not often in high school you’re blessed to have all this God-given talent,” Dellesky said. “We’re all excited to make it happen.”
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