JOHNSON CITY — On a recent afternoon, a line of trucks and cars filed past the gym at Johnson City LBJ High School, which sits on a slight rise a few blocks north of the Blanco County Courthouse.
A few of the vehicles wheeled into a parking spot, and the older members of LBJ’s volleyball team got out and strolled into the gym. Most of the others were driven by parents, who were dropping their girls off for one of the last practices before the Eagles’ season begins Tuesday against perennial playoff participant Poth.
In all, 30 players filled the gym, according to a quick head count by coach Heather Wilson. It’s the highest number of volleyball players in the program since Wilson took over this now-Class 2A program six years ago. The group included more than 20 sophomores and freshmen, a remarkable level of participation for a program that didn’t have a freshman team until last season.
The number of LBJ players — like the team’s number of wins — seems to keep growing.
"It’s definitely become more popular," said McKenna Cowsert, who joins fellow all-district players Paige Dalland and Shay Zbytovsky as the only seniors on this year’s team. "It’s kind of become the ‘it’ sport to do."
If winning draws numbers, then it’s no wonder that volleyball has become the most popular girls sport on a campus with a reported UIL enrollment of 208 students. In Wilson’s first season at the school in 2014, the Eagles went from just four wins to a 13-13 record and missed the playoffs by one game. They haven’t missed since, and they’ve won at least 26 matches in five consecutive seasons.
Not bad for a school whose athletic success in the girls program had previously been measured by a softball team that made regular playoff appearances but never a run at state.
But Wilson, a 2003 graduate of nearby Marble Falls High School, sensed the potential in a program hungry for success.
"When I was hired, I was told that we were a softball school," she said. "Softball, softball, softball. I’m sitting there going ‘Well, if we have softball athletes, we have volleyball athletes, we have basketball athletes.’ I mean, athletes are athletes. If we have them, then we can start a base."
Wilson did just that. Although her previous work as a public school coach consisted of running middle school programs in Marble Falls and Burnet, Wilson had spent extensive time coaching club volleyball. She also understood what it takes to compete at the next level, earning a volleyball scholarship to Lon Morris Junior College and UTSA before a knee injury derailed her collegiate career.
"The first thing when I came in, I wanted to learn the girls," she said. "You can only build a program on the trust of your kids, and I was very lucky getting buy-in that first year.
"When I came in, I told them, ‘I’m going to be hard on you, and I’m going to expect a lot out of you. Just because I’m yelling at you, it doesn’t mean I’m mad at you. But I will require that you get better.’ I don’t know if they had been pushed like that before."
Wilson has also pushed her players to participate in club volleyball while still competing in multiple sports at LBJ. That effort has paid off; the volleyball program has sent multiple players to college in recent years and still has about 70% of its athletes competing in other sports, Wilson said.
"The kids have done an incredible job of continuing to work outside of the season," she said, referring to club volleyball. "I’ve stressed how important it is that you can’t just touch the ball from August to November and not touch it again till next year and expect to get better.
"And I’ve been very diligent to promote multisport athletes. We’re a small school, and you have to play everything. We’ve been lucky that they’ve been able to play volleyball in the offseason and still play other sports here."
But no other girls sport has taken off quite like volleyball. Dalland, a hard-hitting outside hitter who has played on the varsity since her freshman season, said she didn’t play volleyball until the summer before seventh grade. But she and her teammates quickly found success, winning all but one district game in eighth grade.
"I think we were all excited," Dalland said. "We wanted to keep playing — and winning."
Wilson admits that this year’s team might lack the firepower of her past several teams, but she likes how it has developed a defensive mentality strengthened by new starting libero Olivia Adair, who competed for the under-15 U.S. national team last season.
"Last year forced us to step up our defensive game after we graduated some height," Wilson said. "But defense wins games. We knew that was a part of our game that we had to get better, and Olivia’s given us that extra piece that we needed to step up our game."
Seeing the younger players such as Adair embrace the sport has meant even more than all the wins, Cowsert said.
"When we were in middle school, there were barely enough to make teams," Cowsert said. "To look around the gym and see all these girls, it makes us so proud that we’ve been able to be such a good influence on those younger girls and that they want to play the sport and that they look up to us. It’s inspiring."