MELISSA – Don’t look now, but high school volleyball season is upon us. Practices began on Aug. 1, scrimmages are scheduled for Aug. 4-5 and season-openers begin Aug. 7. Today, we’ll preview the Melissa Lady Cardinals and next week Anna’s Lady Coyotes will take the spotlight.

Let’s get started – and welcome to a new season of high school sports!

Last year, first-year Melissa head coach Frank DePaolo and the Lady Cards made a nice run to the regional-quarterfinal playoffs and, with key contributors back, they’re poised for more success. Melissa rolled to a 28-13 overall record in 2016 and claimed second place in District 11-4A with an 8-2 mark — one game behind Celina. The Lady Cards’ post-season ride was ended by none other than No. 1-ranked Argyle, the defending Class 4A state champions. (The Lady Eagles went on to the state-title game again, but fell to Bushland.)

Melissa will compete in District 11-4A again this year with Anna, Celina, Bonham, Aubrey and Princeton. The Lady Cards’ season-opener is Monday, Aug. 7, at home versus Ponder and they open district play at Princeton on Friday, Sept. 22.

While observing Ed Garza’s annual High Intensity Volleyball Camp at Melissa High School on Friday, July 28, DePaolo reflected on last season and looked forward to the coming campaign.

“When I came here,” he said, “we kind of installed a new defense and the girls took a little while to get used to it. What I tried to do was take the defense that I like to run and make the kids fit, and that doesn’t work all the time. So I had to adjust my defense to the players I had – kind of adjust it to make their skill sets shine. It took us a while to kind of mesh. Once we did that I think we did a really good job.”

DePaolo noted that the Lady Cards won the North Central Texas College tournament at Gainesville and played well in the Rockwall tournament against Class 5A-6A opponents.

“Coming into district I really felt like we had an opportunity to win or come in second place, and we did that,” DePaolo said. “And that was through the strength of our defense. Our defense did a really good job. That was with some big kids up on the front blocking. I think we led the district in blocking last year.”

DePaolo said he knew facing Argyle in the playoffs would be a tremendous test.

“Argyle was going to have to play a little bit off and we were going to have to play our best to get past them,” he said. “They’re just so consistent. I’ve gone back and looked at the film probably two or three times since then and there’s not but four or five plays that make you say ‘wow’ — but it’s just every play. They’re smart. Every play, they play to where we’re not or they play to where our weakness is at that moment. That’s what makes them so good. They have a high volleyball IQ. Coach (Clark) Oberle has done a really good job of building that program over there.”

“We started off well against them,” DePaolo recalled, noting a 15-15 tie three-quarters through the first set. “I thought we had a good opportunity and then it was kind of like Argyle’s switch turned on and I think we ended up losing 25-17. But I felt like, with the young team that we had, we did a pretty good job.”

The Lady Eagles closed it out in three tough sets.

For many teams, Argyle is the template for success.

“It’s definitely where I want to take the program,” DePaolo said, “as far as how far they go into the playoffs every year. And I want Melissa to become a destination. When people are looking for a place to live and they’ve got a kid that’s a strong volleyball player, I want Melissa to be at the top of that list as far as places to go.”

(Circle the date Sept. 8: That’s when the Lady Cards get a home-court regular-season rematch with Argyle.)

The Lady Cards will have to make this year’s push without several key players lost to graduation, namely Amanda Kocsis, the district’s Libero of the Year; Alli Boedeker, a First-Team All-District pick; and All-District Second-Teamer Gill Gray. DePaolo said filling the vacancies left by Gray and Boedeker will be especially challenging, “just because of their height and athleticism on the front row.”

Besides senior Brittany Melcher — a First-Team All-District pick last year — DePaolo welcomes back big-hitting junior Susan Blake, the district’s Offensive MVP last year, and sophomore Caroline Kasson, who made Second-Team All-District as a freshman. He also returns two experienced setters in juniors Charley Lane and Sophia Davis – both of whom earned All-District Honorable Mention last season. Senior Aubrey Grantham is also back, another All-District Honorable Mention pick in 2016.

Newcomers for 2017?

“I’ve got some freshmen right now that I really feel like could have an opportunity to move up to the varsity,” DePaolo said. “And I also have a senior, (Grace Whittington), who is returning to volleyball that I’m looking at to be a good player.”

After one year at Melissa, DePaolo said he’s been extremely pleased with the support shown across MISD and within the community.

“I have a good feel now for the culture here in Melissa and I really, really enjoy it,” he said. “There’s a team concept here between all the coaches, between all the teams. Everybody helps out everybody. I really like that. And I get a lot of good support from the superintendent, principals, athletic directors, everybody. Mr. (Keith) Murphy, our superintendent, supports athletics really, really strongly and (Principal) Mr. (Kenneth) Wooten, as a former coach. Then of course Claude Webb, our (girls) athletic director, will go to bat for you for anything you need.”

As for this year’s district race, DePaolo said he thinks last year’s four playoffs teams – Celina, Melissa, Princeton and Aubrey – should be good again, with this caveat: “We’ve all lost players and I think we’re all in the same boat. … I do think the strong teams from last year are going to be strong again, but Bonham’s got a new coach and sometimes a fresh spark can bring some kids out that haven’t played before or you can find some ways to spark. So you never know.”

What should Melissa fans expect this season?

“My goal is to produce an exciting brand of volleyball,” DePaolo said. “And I’ve got some returning players that can do that. I think the wins will come. I think they need to be patient because we’ve got a lot of work to do. I think they will see, though, a constant improvement over the course of the year — and I think that’s the sign of a good program. If you’re not any better at the end of the year than you were at the beginning of the year, then that’s coaching. The kids are going to move along as long as you set the expectations for them to move along — and I think that’s going to happen. I think I’ve got a dedicated group of kids.”

Highlighting that point, DePaolo noted that 28 students — including all six of his returning players — were enrolled in Garza’s Melissa camp. “Tons of freshmen are here at the camp wanting to become part of the program and I think that’s a good sign,” DePaolo said. “We’ve got a lot of people that want to be part of the high school volleyball program.”