LHHS has solid support system in place on, off the court
By Scott Akanewich
A role for everyone and everyone for a role.
Perhaps the most critical aspect for harmony and contentment in any organization is the ability of its members to recognize and accept certain individuals within the ranks who are seemingly cut out to serve a particular purpose in the grand scheme of things.
The Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill are certainly not an exception when it comes to the need for this kind of cohesion and it has gone a long way toward producing what to this point has been a very successful season.
According to head Coach Gretchen Peterson, everyone on her roster is capable of fulfilling various duties at specific times.
“All of our players have a role,” said Peterson. “But, anyone can play any other at a given time, which makes us a more complete team.”
What we’re talking about here is intangibles – far beyond the usual Xs and Os of serve, dig, set, block and kill – but a certain set of responsibilities to ensure the Purple-and-Gold ship sails smoothly regardless of what kind of waters they encounter.
“I think that’s what makes our team really special,” said Peterson. “When somebody sees there is a need, they’re all so amazing at filling those roles.”
The fact volleyball can be such an emotional game means there needs to be a calming influence to make sure spirits remain high even when rough patches are reached.
Kindsee Escamilla is more than happy to fill that need.
“What I try to do is to remind everyone to loosen up,” said the junior outside hitter. “Not necessarily to be silly, but to always still have fun, which every team needs no matter how high the skill level is. Without the kinds of relationships that builds, you won’t go very far.”
Escamilla said it’s not always an easy role to fill.
“Sometimes, it’s pretty hard because I can let negative emotions get the better of me,” she said. “But, it’s important to not dwell. If someone makes a bad pass or something, we need to have a ‘next ball’ mentality.”
All of this occurs not only in the heat of competition during matches, but many times happens on the practice court,” said Escamilla.
“Like the other day, we didn’t have the best practice,” she said. “Maybe somebody has a rough morning at home or a bad day at school, which is sometimes tough to get out of. When that happens to me, I realize I have to get over it for the team.”
So, what does a squad spirit leader do at a time like this?
Plenty of positive reinforcement.
“Mostly, it’s all about the little things,” said Escamilla. “Maybe you can say something which will brighten someone’s face or being able to read body language and make each other laugh.”
Haley Kuhlmann is the Lady Panthers’ laughter specialist, as the sophomore libero always seems to say or do the right thing at the right time to elicit happiness from her teammates, an endearing trait that is something she’s quite a natural at, she said.
“For me, it’s not difficult,” said Kuhlmann. “I always been the jokester of the teams I’ve been on.”
However, there’s a time to clown and a time to be all business, she said.
“It’s important to know when it’s time to play and be serious,” said Kuhlmann.
But, that’s only once the ball goes up.
Anything goes up until that moment, which is why a common sight is to see Kuhlmann and fellow sophomore Emma Becker execute a flying shoulder bump at various times on the court during matches to get themselves and their teammates fired up.
“We started doing that once we got into the season a bit,” said Kuhlmann. “I want to send a message to the other team we’re excited and ready to play.”
Much of Kuhlmann’s best work in this regard is away from the spotlight of match day, she said.
“If someone’s down, it’s my job to pick them up, make them happy and put a smiley face on them,” said Kuhlmann. “I think I can get everyone to come out of their shells by joking around in practice and making people laugh.”
Aside from laughing matters, though, whenever Peterson needs to correct a player with a very distinct message, that’s when junior middle blocker Lilli Wilkins springs into action with all the same skill she rises up to block a shot at the net with.
“We all feel pressured to perform at a high level,” said Wilkins. “But, at the same time, I like to remind them it’s only a game and to take a breath.”
One of the most crucial aspects of her job is to be the good cop to Peterson’s bad in certain situations by being a translator of sorts for her teammates.
“I try to tell people to take the message out of the tone,” she said. “One of the things I’ll say is ask them ‘Okay, what was Coach really saying?’”
Wilkins is a subject-matter expert when it comes to situations such as this due to something she went through during her freshman season at a Dallas-area school before transferring to Liberty Hill last year as a sophomore.
“I had a coach who would get right up in my face, yelling with spit flying and everything,” said Wilkins. “She would be telling me things like my asthma was no excuse for lack of conditioning and when I was injured I was letting my team down,” she said. “So, I took that as I needed to work on my endurance and practice better injury prevention.”
Now, that’s finding a silver lining in a black cloud.
As a result, she learned a valuable lesson in gleaning a positive result from a negative situation.
“I realized it’s not always how someone is saying something,” said Wilkins. “But what they’re saying which is what’s important.
Certainly, there are no ugly incidents such as that on Peterson’s watch, but when points need to be firmly made, the veteran coach is glad to have someone of Wilkins’ acumen around, she said.
“I think sometimes players need to hear something from someone who’s been in their shoes,” said Peterson. “Players respond well when they know you understand how they feel. Sometimes players will only notice these things when it happens to them in this regard.”
Peterson said it’s important to always leave a player with a positive at the end of the day.
“As a coach, I need to correct and push them hard sometimes,” she said. “But, then after practice, we have to be good about it. I want my players to know I care about them more as people than athletes and I think they all know we all care about each other. We’ve figured out that dynamic and have been really blessed.”
For Wilkins, the role she plays is one she fully embraces.
“I love being the good cop,” she said. “When someone gets flustered, I have the knowledge of how to handle it and like to pass it on.”
Like earlier this season when sophomore middle blocker Ailie Hair found herself up against some formidable competition across the net.
“It was back at the beginning of the season, when I was injured and Ailie got called up from the JV,” said Wilkins. “She was up against a really good middle who was already committed to college and got pretty flustered and really down on herself. So, during a timeout, I just took her by the hand and let her know everything was going to be okay.”
Peterson said with girls’ teams there is a different dynamic altogether as compared to their male counterparts.
“I think with female sports teams, the players definitely need to like and respect one another in order to play well together,” she said. “I can honestly say our players enjoy spending time together and when you have that, people can be genuine – that’s important because girls don’t want drama or nonsense. Once you have that to deal with as a coach, it’s a whole other battle to fight.”
Finally, any squad needs a team mom to make sure everything goes smoothly from getting to the right places on time, making sure everyone has the same uniform and just about everything in between.
Which is where senior Lauren LaDuque enters the equation, providing the Lady Panthers with an often-overlooked element of leadership.
LaDuque, who finally made the varsity this season, believes the fact she showed the resolve to endure has provided her with the ability to serve in that role.
“I think I’m a lot more calm because I’m so far past any drama I dealt with before this season,” she said. “For me, it’s an entirely different situation.”
One of her most important responsibilities is to make sure pre-match rituals and routines go off without a hitch.
“I need to make sure everyone’s mentally ready to play so we can have our best game,” said LaDuque. “Like the first home match when we threw balls into the stands – we weren’t mentally there.”
In some instances, LaDuque has to ensure emotional teenage situations don’t spill onto the court, she said.
“There was one time when someone was having boyfriend trouble on the phone right before we were going to play,” said LaDuque. “So, I had to say, ‘Okay, we’re putting the phone down now.’ I think usually when something like that happens, they might not like it at the time, but they know I’m right.”
So, what’s it like being the voice of reason?
“I’m a caring person, so I like to take care of people,”she said. “They listen to me because they know I have experience.”
Part of that precious experience is knowing sugar will get one much further than salt when attempting to drive home a point with a teammate, she said.
“I try to be as nice as I can with everyone,” said LaDuque. “As a girl, it’s much easier to take advice that way.”
LaDuque also has a contingency plan for when teammates might be missing a particular piece of equipment.
“My teammates know I’m always ready with extra stuff in my locker, like an extra hairband or a sports bra,” she said. “It gives me peace of mind to know everything is in place, so the night before a match, I’ll be texting making sure everyone’s ready.”
All of this is attributed to the entire team buying into and taking ownership of the concept, said Peterson.
“It’s all about how well the team meshes as far as how easily everyone is going to assume their roles,” she said. “If everyone is willing to embrace their roles and the roles of others, they have an understanding. Some teams latch onto that right away, others take some time for that to develop.”
Part of the process is figuring out who will fit in each distinct slot, said Peterson.
“You need to be comfortable with the role you’re in,” she said. “Some of our players have particular hats they were born to wear.”
So, which one did she fill back during her playing days?
“Probably the good cop because I got yelled at a lot, but that was because I could take it,” said Peterson. “I understood it wasn’t personal and was coming from a place of love and care and then when it happened to others, I could better relay the message – it was a great learning experience for me.”