The Neches Lady Tigers volleyball team has been of the more dominant units across the University Interscholastic League the past two years.
In 2018, Neches went 31-3 en route to their first state volleyball championship in program history. The Lady Tigers followed that with a 40-win season in 2019 and back-to-back state titles.
Much of their core remains the same this year with eight of their nine players returning for a possible third state title run. This year, however, they'll attempt to do it with new leadership at the top.
First-year Neches coach Jenna Jenkins makes her return to the volleyball scene after a year break from the coaching ranks.
Jenkins was the assistant volleyball coach under Sidnee Fitzpatrick at Westwood in 2018 before taking a year break to focus on the classroom.
“It was exciting because you think about the shoes you're trying to fill,” Jenkins said about taking the Neches job. “These girls have been playing together a long time and their reputation proceeds them”
Jenkins replaced Moran Roberson who returned to her hometown of Callisburg to head their volleyball program.
From 2010-16, Jenkins also served as the assistant volleyball coach under former Westwood coach Janae Evans. From 2012-18, she was the head softball coach for the Lady Panthers.
Despite the enormous shoes Jenkins will attempt to fill this year, she believes her preparedness is thanks in large part to the time she spent under Evans and her program.
But this year is different for first-year coaches. Not only are they expected to install a productive new program, but they're asked to do it in the midst of a health pandemic.
“It's been a challenge sometimes,” Jenkins said. “But it's taught us to be more grateful that we're able to play right now. My job is to keep these kids safe.”
The Lady Tigers have five decorated seniors headlining their team. Emily Hill was recognized as the district's MVP setter and was a member of the Texas Girls Coaches Association and the Texas Sports Writers Association All-State team.
Nayeli Quistian is the district's reigning defensive MVP, Lexi Rogers was crowned MVP hitter, Kacie Kimbrough was the district's MVP – and state tournament MVP – while Raegan Hill was a first-team all-district selection.
All five were also selected to the all-state team in 2019.
“They're a special group,” Jenkins said. “They're coachable and have great attitudes. They set great examples for the kids following them.”
Jenkins says she is fortunate to take over a program with established players. But with the blessing of proven talent comes the realization of having to prepare a nearly entire new group to step in next year.
It's a balance Jenkins has tried to combat by allowing her junior varsity girls practice against the varsity.
For now, coach Jenkins's main focus is centered on trying to get better each day.
“I have a good kind of pressure on me,” Jenkins said. “The pressure keeps me focused and working hard. They're an amazing group of kids, but none of us are beyond improvement. The opportunity to get better keeps me motivated.”