By Travis M. Smith | Ellis County Sports Sports
Though it should not come as much of a shock, the Red Oak Lady Hawks are once again streaking toward the postseason.
It is also likely no surprise that head coach Hope Porter and company are led by a strong, experience-laden senior class.
At the head of the group of five seniors — at least statistically speaking — is outside hitter Hailey Hunt.
Hunt entered the season knowing that she would be the go-to for the Red Oak setters, having already notched 917 kills over her first three varsity seasons.
Hunt recorded 144 kills in 127 sets played her freshman year. She then jumped that kill total to 281 during her sophomore campaign and exploded on the scene with 492 kills in 2018 as a junior.
She did not, however, know who exactly that setter would be following a season-ending lower leg injury to projected-starter Brooke O’Neal before the first serve.
The injury put Porter into a bit of a scramble to find the second setter in her preferred 6-2 rotation. She ultimately turned to junior Carley Rushing, who is in her second year on the varsity squad, as the starter and positional change for sophomore Makinzie Taplin.
Luckily for Hunt and the rest of the Lady Hawk hitters, it’ worked to near perfection.
“They have progressed continuously as the season has gone on,” said Porter on Friday after a district-opening sweep of Joshua this past Friday. “Carley did have one year of experience in the 6-2 but I have been throwing them out there in the 5-2, which neither one of them has ever run. Makinzie just keeps getting better and better. Every time we step on the court she is getting better and she wants to learn, so it is exciting to watch them grown.”
Rushing currently leads the team with 621 assists (6.5 per set), while Taplin has 324 (3.7 per set) for (22-10, 2-0) Red Oak.
It was also one of the two who assisted on Hunt’s 1,000th career kill in a 2-0 tournament win against Abilene Cooper on Aug. 10. She now leads Ellis County with — and, according to DMN SportsDay, the entire metroplex — with 460 kills in 94 sets played (4.9 kills per set), all while boasting an impressive .315-hitting percentage.
Hunt is quick, however, to tell anyone who asks that those personal achievements or accolades are the furthest things from her focus. She wants to lead, which is quite obvious to anyone who attends a Lady Hawks match. Hunt is often “coaching” from the floor, ensuring teammates are positioned properly to break an opposing serve and clapping along after they succeed.
In fact, Hunt explained that it was her early commitment to Stephen F. Austin University that is largely responsible for her growth as a leader on the court.
“My decision to commit whenever I did caused me to stop focusing on myself and to start focusing on helping my teammates,” the 5-foot-10 outside hitter said. “It wasn’t about me anymore. I achieved what I always wanted to achieve and, of course, I always want to continue to grow, but now it is about this team. I got the hard part handled so my job is to take the pressure off of them because I know how stressful the recruiting process can be.”
But statistics and verbal commitments do not guarantee a player will earn the respect of his or her peers. And Hunt knew that before stepping into her new role. She has instead relied on her experience in Porter’s system, ultimately finding it easy to lead because the underclassmen “want to learn.”
Porter has seen the growth too — and likes what she is seeing.
“She has grown, a lot, as a leader,” Porter said of Hunt. “She keeps them cool, calm and collected and even-keeled all year long. Any time we have lost, it has been because we have lost our composure.
“So the focus for us is to keep our composure, regardless of if we are winning or not. She has stepped up and been a very positive vocal leader on the court.”
That leadership — and stellar play at the net — will soon be put to the test too, especially if this group of Lady Hawks has state-tournament aspirations (Spoiler alert: They do).
It’s no secret that the Red Oak Lady Hawks are already one of the premier volleyball programs in the state.
Outside of a two-year drought from 2014-15, the Lady Hawks have been postseason mainstays for the better part of the past four decades. They even snagged a couple of state championships in 1992, 1995 and 2002 over that span.
Porter has continued that same winning tradition since transitioning from a varsity assistant to the head coach in 2009. Her teams have won 30 or more matches five times and will soon surpass 25 victories for the ninth time in 11 seasons.
This version of the Lady Hawks might also be one of the more athletic and versatile in quite some time. It might even be one of the closer-knit and mentally strong groups, too, which bodes well for the group.
Both Porter and Hunt agreed, though, that any growth that needs to be made ahead of the postseason needs to come skills-wise, primarily for some of the younger players.
“I need to see continual growth in some of our less experienced kids,” Porter said. “Since August, we have come a long way. But if we can continue up the ladder, good things could happen.”
Hunt put it a little more plainly.
“Our growth is going to come from just volleyball skills. Mentally we are there. Mentally, we are a volleyball team that feels like it has played together for years,” the senior captain said. “I have never played on a team that has the bond that this team has. I know that these girls would go to hell and back for me and I would do the same for them.
“This team has a bond like no other. So, it is now a matter of, ‘OK, we are not quite where we need to be skill-wise, so how can I make you better in practice.’ We need to continue to push each other and have a healthy competition among each other.”
Red Oak returns to District 14-5A action at 5:30 p.m. Friday at home against Corsicana.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith