Listen closely before the next Vandegrift volleyball match. Before the JV game is even over, the varsity team has already begun their pregame routine, blasting a trio of songs in the locker room and sweating after jumping around together.
It always ends with the same song, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” right before the team goes out.
“I’m pretty sure you can hear it playing in the gym,” senior Simone Priebe said.
After a fantastic non-district schedule, the Lady Vipers were ranked for a few weeks. But they began district play with two losses in their first three games but pulled even with a win against Leander last Tuesday.
Vandegrift has always relied on younger players to play key roles. Priebe and fellow senior outside hitter Ryan Palmieri have been on varsity since they were freshmen. And with a first-year head coach and a roster yet again filled with youth, their leadership has been key to the team’s success.
“I’m a lot more confident in myself,” Palmieri said. “As a freshman I was more timid and afraid to make mistakes. It being my senior year, I’m just going to go for it. I’ve just grown as a person and a player in the confidence category.”
Both of them remember being terrified when they were freshmen. Palmieri said it took her some time to earn a spot on a team. Priebe said she probably annoyed the upperclassmen because she held herself to a high level.
In their time with the Lady Vipers, this senior class has never finished lower than third the district play and been to the playoffs three straight seasons, making as far as the regional finals in 2015.
The idea of playing “Sweet Caroline” was born out of this senior class. And to fans, it may seem inconsequential. But to the team, a small routine to get focused before a match can mean the difference between a win and a loss.
“It’s hard to play under pressure and when you have so much pressure on yourself you feel like you have to perform,” Priebe said. “It kind of takes that away and lets you be who you are and play how you are and be true to yourself and your game.”
The two outside hitters have been devastating so far this season. Palmieri leads the team with 417 kills and Priebe is second with 274. The duo is also second and third on the team in digs, trailing only senior Taylor Byrne.
After spending one season as an assistant Melissa Southall was named the new head volleyball coach in the offseason.
She replaced Kelly Skidmore, who had been in charge since the school opened. There are traditions and ways the team had been doing things that she wanted to keep. But at the same time, there were things that inevitably were going to change.
Her relationship with the seniors especially has been one where they bounce ideas off of each other. Having the same coach since basically the 7th grade to a new system can be difficult for experienced players to adjust to. But the team has taken it in stride.
“It’s more so of a trust because they can always improve,” Southall said. “If we make an error I know they know what needs to be done and move on to the next ball. That comes with the experience of not panicking. The other girls trust them as well.”
And the youth movement is continuing.
Sophomore Annie Stadhaus leads the team with 123 total blocks and is fourth with 155 kills, while setter Delaney Dilfer is the leader in assists with 571 and is fourth on the tame with 165 digs.
Vandegrift is rich with talent for volleyball. Southall said the plethora of club teams in the area and teams at the YMCA contribute to that as well as events, like the Little Diggers camp the Lady Vipers will be hosting on Oct. 14. for girls from kindergarten to sixth grade.
Once the girls get to high school, age doesn’t always matter. If a sophomore gets more playing time than a senior and the results are showing that it’s working, there is no animosity within the team.
“This group of girls is the most selfless group of girls that I’ve been around,” Palmieri said. “We’ve had instances where someone will be messing up and Coach Southall will put someone younger in their spot. They’re not upset at the fact that they’re individually not playing. They’re just happy the team is doing good.”
Both seniors are verbally committed to play in college. Palmieri will continue her career in Dallas at SMU, while Priebe is going to California to play beach volleyball at Pepperdine where all of her home matches will take place on Zuma Beach in Malibu.
Palmieri and Priebe are both excited for the rest of their final year at Vandegrift and are anxious for when it all comes to an end.
The Lady Vipers face one of their toughest stretches of the season when they travel to face Westlake and Lake Travis, the top two teams in the district, in their next two games on Friday and Tuesday.
“After we lost to Hays last Friday, I told them all that we’re not done,” Palmieri said. “I know we had this amazing preseason. But come the second round, we’re going to be so much more ready and you’re going to see a difference.”