The tears of last Tuesday's three-set playoff loss to Mansfield Lake Ridge High School at Berkner High School have fallen, dried, evaporated and transformed into an entirely different animal.
An animal of grit, promise and most importantly, youth.
"The reason we lost that game was because Sydney wasn't on the floor," said Mary Malone, the head volleyball coach at Midlothian High School, between conversations with her assistant coach Tanya Hydes. "She has a knack for bringing them back from the edge and if she was there to take the pressure off of them, our front line would have been able to come back and do what we did our entire playoff run."
"It was heartbreaking, honestly. When I was sitting down, I was tearing up," Little added, readjusting her walking boot-clad left foot on the two-wheeled scooter prescribed to her to hasten the healing process of her ankle injury. "Coach made me turn around so my teammates couldn't see me cry. It hurt me to sit and watch, but not be able to do anything about anything."
Malone said her sophomore class, after Little's injury, had to take on a lot of responsibility, noting not having her experience on the floor exposed their biggest glaring weakness. She said that vulnerability was age and noted her bevy of freshman and sophomore talent, but said youth could be a weapon, too.
"That loss won't define our season or our future," Malone continued. "We did a lot of things we weren't supposed to do considering we're so inexperienced and have a first-year coach. With all of the ups and downs, that loss cannot define what we are as a team and a family. It's going to be a lot of mental toughness growth [during over the offseason]. There is pressure building and they have to get used to it."
They received no mercy dropping from District 8-6A to District 10-5A either. Pound-for-pound, a district made up of Waxahachie, Red Oak and Mansfield Lake Ridge High Schools and an always dangerous Linda Alfaro-led Mansfield Summit High School may provide the toughest road to the postseason outside of Prosper High School and its District 14-5A.
Prosper (14-0), Creekview (11-3), Lake Dallas (11-5) and The Colony (8-5) lost a combined 13 district games. When compared to Midlothian's opponents, it's hard to decipher which path produces the greatest pitfalls.
If faced with the trials and tribulations the Lady Panthers faced during the 2016 season — death and injuries to arguably their most dynamic hitters — other district teams may not have made the playoffs much less finish third in one of the most battle-tested districts in Texas.
"I know how far we went this year and I know we have the potential to go a lot farther. Everybody underestimated us and we became great and proved them wrong," Little said, noting the effect losing in regionals has had on her and her teammates. "I think that's just fired us up even more. Next season, people are going to have to watch out for us — especially Lake Ridge and 'Hachie."
Despite their roster's shortcomings, Midlothian vehemently defied the path fate placed them on and carved their own — right to the regional quarterfinal round of the UIL 5A playoffs. After Reagan Deese's season-ending injury, the Lady Panthers were left with only Emmalee Low, Georgia Cappell and Little, the team captain, as its senior and junior leaders.
Without Deese, the Lady Panthers won key matches against Mansfield Lake Ridge and Red Oak High Schools and ended their regular season 27-16 overall, 9-5 in the district and on a three-game win streak.
Little's enthusiasm about the 2017 season may not be misplaced. Except for departing seniors Cappell, Deese, Lowe and Brooklyn Lewis, the Lady Panthers should return eight of 12 playoff-hardened veterans. They will have future seniors Little, Kamryn Owen, Hydea Martin and Aubrey Walton and future juniors Kelby Buchanan, Aliyah Muhammad and Samantha Rodgers, as well as some secret weapons.
"I'm losing my right side and a libero, but I'm moving up a sophomore libero that is logical, analytical and cerebral and freshman that may come up depending on how much she matures as a person. I also have Kelby who can play all over the place," Malone said. "When I stepped in the school for the first time, I didn't know the type of heart these girls have existed in high school. I know there's a lot of talent in some high schools and talent sprinkled amongst other high schools. These girls really responded and showed they have grit. When I was coaching college, I got to pick that because I could see it and choose it. In high school, you inherit them.
"The girls I inherited have heart, grit and everything in between. I think grit is way more valuable than talent, but you have to be smart enough to use grit when you need it and have the talent to back it up. Their future looks bright. They're eager for learning, love volleyball and want more of both. As a coach, you can't ask for more than that."