Despite having a third new coach in as many years, a majority of the Moffat County High School volleyball team didn't walk into unfamiliar territory when it started two-a-days last week.
Team members already had been together for endless summer hours in the gym, two summer camps and what they think was an attempted drive-by shooting at their hotel during one of those camps.
"We came into practice already prepared," said senior Natalie Field. "We definitely feel more united as a team starting out the season."
About the "drive-by" -- "Our Motel 6 in Greeley was shot at when we stayed there," said senior Brittany Hutton. "We were in a little bit of a scary area."
The Bulldogs and their new coach, Becky Howlett, hope that the volleyball court isn't as scary of an area as it has been in the past for teams from Moffat County.
Thus far, the optimism is high with hopes that the hotel incident will be the last time the Bulldogs will be ducking and running. Howlett said she was impressed by the progress in the summer that she saw during non-mandatory practice sessions.
"They showed a lot of loyalty," said the first-year coach. "They were willing and dedicated all summer."
With five seniors who saw varsity playing time last year and junior Brandie Telfer, the Bulldogs aren't short on the experience side of things, but the experience hasn't been a too muc of a winning one for the MCHS volleyball teams.
"The volleyball program hasn't had a chance to build on itself with the coaching changes," said senior Lauren Stover. "We're excited because Becky could really start that here."
One aspect that Howlett said she saw improve in the summer was the team's confidence. At the University of Northern Colorado team camp, the group went from being ranked 28th to finishing fourth. At the camp was where Howlett started to see things click.
"At UNC, I started to think, 'This is my team,'" she said. "They started taking chances when they didn't have the momentum and that is my coaching style."
Other things Howlett saw were lacking when the summer sessions first started was good footwork, knowledge of volleyball strategy and aggressiveness. Now, as the first match nears, she recognizes those aspects in the team.
"They have confidence, communication, teamwork, consistency and a better understanding of the game," she said. "They absorb what I tell them like sponges and they keep coming back for more."
The seniors returned the compliments to their new coach.
"She is out there encouraging us all to take chances and we've learned a lot," said Stephanie Kloos.
"She could bring the program up," said Ashlee Hafey.
A former NCAA Div. I All-American, Howlett has tried to teach everything she can and she admits the learning has been reciprocal.
"There are a lot of things new to me since I'm unfamiliar with their conference," she said. "Just this week, they had to help me set up the bus schedule because I wasn't sure how far some of the conference schools were."
While she has seemingly won over the athletes, Howlett admits she hasn't taken it easy on them the first week and a half of official practice.
"I've been wearing them down with conditioning," she said. "They are going to work hard to earn their spots."
Once they earn their spots, a season gets under way. The seniors mentioned a goal of qualifying for the regional tournament. In order to reach that goal, the Bulldogs' front line will need to carry the team, which, with the addition of senior transfer Sheena Davis in the middle setting up the outside hitters, the Bulldogs think is possible.
"We've got a strong line of hitters," Hutton said.
"Our front row is what teams will hear about when they get ready for us."
While the team has experienced a lot together even before the season starts, they know confidence and high hopes don't count until they are converted into wins.
"We believe we've come a long was as a program," Field said. "Now we have to prove it."
Obviously Howlett shares that goal but in the shorter term, she said she is happy by everything she's seen so far.
"I feel honored to have what I have for my first year," she said. "We've got a team full of leaders and they've got a willingness to learn and come together."
David Pressgrove can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.