Melissa's Lady Cardinals are coming off a record-setting volleyball season, capped by their first trip to the state tournament.

The teams' District 11-4A adversaries are the same as a year ago — Anna, Gainesville, Sanger, Celina and Aubrey — and that means another thrilling ride to the postseason.So break out the stadium seats, locate those team schedules and make space on your calendar. The 2019-20 high school athletics season has arrived.

Melissa Lady Cardinals

Head coach: Frank DePaolo, 4th year

2018 record: 38-12 overall, 8-2 district co-champions / state semifinalists

Season-opener: Aug. 6 at McKinney North

District-opener: Sept. 27 at Anna

MELISSA – To call Melissa's 2018 season a memorable one would be quite the understatement. Besides posting a program-best 38 wins, the team reached its first-ever state tournament and saw three of its members selected for All-State honors — the most in program history and the most from any 4A team in Texas last year.

It was indeed a wild and wonderful ride, coach Frank DePaolo acknowledged on Aug. 1 in Melissa Middle School's main gymnasium. In that season packed with highpoints, one game stands out for DePaolo — and it's one he wasn't even at. It was the second district match with Sanger, a crucial showdown after the Lady Indians had prevailed earlier at Melissa.

“My older son got married in Houston and that Friday night was his rehearsal dinner,” DePaolo said. “I promised him that I would be there. … The week leading up to that game I pretty much gave the workouts to my seniors and let them lead practices. I was told from the time they got onto the bus till the time they won the last point in the third set they took [charge] and they did it really, really well.”

That, DePaolo said, is when he knew this team had something special.

Sanger and Melissa would tie for the district title, forcing an extra match to determine playoff seeding — and this time DePaolo was there.

“It put a little pressure on me,” he said with a laugh. “Luckily we ended up winning. Then we played them again in the regional final and won again.”

Of course, reaching the state tourney left a lasting impression as well. DePaolo had attended the prestigious event for many years — “to see what it looked like when you got to that game,” he said — but that didn't prepare him for the rush of being an active participant.

“When we did our warm-up (for the semifinal match), it was kind of like every other game,” DePaolo said. “Then we went into the locker room and when we came back out, there were 1,100-1,200 people from Melissa in the stands, constantly cheering, big-head (posters) up in the stands, signs in the stands. … It was something I will never forget.”

DePaolo said he believes this year's Lady Cardinals have “a really good shot” of making it back to state.

“But we do have a target on our back,” he said.

To get there, Melissa will have to rebound from losing five key seniors, including three-year starters Charley Lane, Susan Blake and Sophia Davis.

Lane and Blake, a setter and an outside hitter, respectively, both made First-Team All-District last season and were two of the Lady Cards' All-State honorees as selected by the Texas Girls Coaches Association. Davis was District 11-4A's Setter of the Year.

“Charley and Sophia, being setters, are like your quarterbacks on the court,” DePaolo said. “Those are very key losses. And Susan's attitude in practice, Susan's calmness, we're really going to miss that.”

Also graduated are two-year starter Anna Fortenberry - a Second-Team All-District middle hitter - and Honorable Mention All-District defensive specialist Cydney Abbott.

“Sophia, Charley, Susan, Anna and Cydney - all of them - led in different ways,” DePaolo said.

The Lady Cards return eight players, four who started in 2018.

Outside hitter Caroline Kasson, the Texas Sports Writers Association's Class 4A Player of the Year, is back for her senior campaign. Kasson's 2018 accolades also included District MVP, TGCA All-State pick, TGCA All-Star and State All-Tournament Team selectee — those last two being firsts for Melissa volleyball.

For the year, Kasson posted team-highs in kills (623), solo blocks (12), hitting percentage and kill percentage, and was second in digs and service aces.

Two other experienced front-row standouts are back as well — Second-Team All-District right-side hitter KG Matthews, who shifts to setter now as a junior, and Honorable Mention All-District junior Abbey Maldonado. Senior Ella Branson, an Honorable Mention All-District defensive specialist a year ago, moves to setter as well.

Sophomore Chelsea George, the 2018 District Libero of the Year, is back too. George dug up a team-high 513 balls last season, with 45 aces and 128 assists.

“Probably our most evident newcomer is sophomore Brooklee Waltrip,” DePaolo said.

Waltrip missed last season due to knee surgery but is now slated for an outside/right-side hitter position.

“Then we've got four sophomores and two or three freshmen that we're really looking at to fill some spots,” DePaolo said.

Though outside hitting will be a strong suit again, hitting from the middle and right side should be improved, DePaolo said, making for a stronger overall offense.

“Caroline's going to get her kills this year,” he said. “I think we've shown that all throughout team camp and summer league. We just finished with summer league, playing against Timber Creek from Fort Worth, playing against Boswell from Fort Worth, playing against Wylie – all teams with higher classifications than us and we did really well. … It's going to be whether teams can keep our other offensive players from scoring.”

Asked about possible challenges for this squad, DePaolo said it's likely going to be replacing the leadership. DePaolo expects another spirited battle in District 11-4A which, he noted, proved its mettle in last season's playoffs.

“I think last year proved how strong our district was,” he said. “Sanger made it to the regional tournament. We made it to the state tournament. Celina made it to the third round. … We only had one team out of the four (Aubrey) that made the playoffs that didn't make it to at least the third round.”

Kathy Barton returns as DePaolo's varsity assistant and two new assistant coaches are on board: Raechel Van Horn, who'll coach JV1, and Steve De Luna, who moves over from girls' soccer to coach JV2.

“I want to acknowledge how important our staff and our city were in our run last year,” DePaolo said. “Our stands have always been packed. I think that not only says a lot about the support of the school and the community but it also says a lot about the kids. We've got kids who do things right in the classroom. They do things right by their friends.”

Though now a state-tournament coaching veteran, DePaolo noted, “When people ask me what I do, I say, 'I'm an Honors geometry teacher – and I happen to be a head volleyball coach.' I think that's true for all of us. We're teachers first, and we happen to also have an opportunity to mold kids through sport.”