By BRYAN URBACH
The Westwood Lady Panthers had a special year in volleyball this past season — ending it with ending a Regional appearance in the playoffs.
Along with making to that point in the playoffs, Westwood also dominated district play by going undefeated during the season.
Those accomplishments, as well as many others, could not have happened without the play of three All-Staters — Mi’Kayla Benson, who was named to the Class 2A All-State team along with Neeli Hardison and Natali Muniz, who were named to the first team Academic All-State squad.
Westwood coach Janae Evans said she is proud of her players’ accomplishments and recognitions and credits them for the hard work each player put forth.
“This year was extremely exciting,” Evans said. “I had some younger girls who stepped up and played well and then the girls who have been with me did an incredible job at leading the team in the right direction. These girls stayed very focused all throughout the season and that’s what helped us the most.
“For Westwood, this year was the first year that any team has gone to the Regional tournament, so it was a really big deal for the girls,” she added. “To do something that’s never been done at Westwood is great.
“We always said we wanted to make a name for Westwood volleyball and that’s definitely something that we were excited about doing this year.”
Evans said each girl brought something different to the team, starting with Benson.
“Mi’Kayla is an incredibly athletic person,” Evans said. “I remember as a freshman, her coming in, and I could just tell that she was starting to really love volleyball. She started playing club ball and she then stepped in a played a big role as a sophomore on varsity. She’s done an incredible job the past three years of doing what I ask her to do and working hard.
“This year she stepped into more of a leadership role and she carried herself really well,” she added.
Neeli Hardison, this past year, was Westwood’s primary setter — not only working to perfect her game but her academics as well.
“I’ve worked hard my whole life on my grades,” Hardison said. “It’s my main priority even over volleyball. It’s really amazing to be honored for my grades.
“I’m the one that’s been nice to everybody,” she added. “They know that I want to win, so I think they know that I just want to bring the peace to the team. And when we’re on the court, I just try my best to keep everyone together when we’re down and try to keep everything positive.”
Evans had similar thoughts about Hardison’s attitude toward the game and what she brought to the team.
“Neeli has been a setter all the way through and she’s just been very coachable,” Evans said. “Everything I ask her to do, she just does it so well. This year, she stepped into a huge role of doing all of the setting and I think she did an incredible job of that. All three of these girls are great kids.”
Muniz has been passionate about volleyball for a while now, and Evans said that passion has shown in the past two seasons with Muniz’s consistency on the court.
“With Natali, she’s very athletic,” Evans said. “Natali has worked very hard to be where she is at and to be a great volleyball player. I think last year and this year she’s always played really consistent volleyball.
“All three of these girls are very smart and very talented. I’m glad I got the chance to be able to work with these girls. I’m very proud of them.”