March 1, 2018
DENTON - It's the beginning of a movement. The North Texas volleyball team says goodbye to the program's first two-time all-region selection, the only player in school history with 1,000 kills, 600 digs and 250 blocks, and the winningest class in program history. But as they say, when one door closes, another opens.
"It's going to be a different experience, because I kind of came in with the seniors as an early enrollee," junior setter Karley York said. "But we're going to have the same amount of talent, if not more."
The Mean Green will take the court in 2018 with nine freshman or sophomores, the most since 2014, when the now-outgoing seniors arrived in Denton. As the program hits the reset button, the younger players are excited for the opportunity it presents.
"It's exciting for us because we're all learning our new roles on the team," freshman outside hitter Barbara Teakell said. "Having a young team is great because everything's new. We get to create our own culture."
Teakell enjoyed a stellar rookie season with 262 kills, 167 digs and 28 blocks, earning Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year and Honorable Mention All-Southwest Region honors. The Celina, Texas, native posted the fifth-best attack percentage (.263) by a North Texas freshman in the rally era (since 2001) and picked up two C-USA Freshman of the Week honors.
She was one of three routine freshman starters for North Texas, along with fellow outside hitter Valerie Valerian and libero Henrianna Ibarra. Valerian finished second on the team in digs (299) and solo blocks (17) and third with 307 kills. Ibarra led the team with 320 digs and ranked third in assists (53) and aces per set (0.27).
"It's great, coming off of the year we had, with three freshman starting and getting that experience," Mean Green head coach Andrew Palileo said. "I'm excited to see how they're going to continue on in that process and leave their legacy as younger players. It'll be interesting to see how they progress and go from playing around those seniors to being the leaders."
North Texas finished 2017 with a laundry list of milestones and achievements, including the program's first regular-season conference championship, first postseason victory, most wins (29) and the first win over Western Kentucky since 2008. For the freshman, this is now their normal.
"We came in not knowing much about the previous seasons, so all we know is winning," Valerian said. "How to win a championship, have that team connection and to strive for something big. It's nice to have something to build on moving forward. It helped set a foundation for the years to come."
However, two of the last three games left a bitter taste in everyone's mouths; a four-set loss to WKU in the C-USA Conference Championship game and a five-set loss to TCU in the second round of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship. While it stung in the moment, that experience will mean more in the long run for Teakell and Valerian as they transition into leadership roles.
"They understand that experience is important for their improvements for this next season and how to manage it physically and mentally," Palileo said. "Now they know how to make their teammates better, and carry, push and encourage the team in those moments. They're both good leaders in their own way and it'll be exciting for them to take that next step."
Now that the dust has settled from the historic season, Teakell and Valerian, who were both early-enrollees, get to look back on their first full year within the program. While their first spring was about getting up to speed with Palileo's system, the second go-round is going to be more about reflection and fine-tuning.
"It's crazy to think where we are now," Valerian said. "We've definitely gotten more adjusted and comfortable."
"In the fall, you don't have as much time to focus on the little technical things," Teakell said. "It was more about the bigger picture. Now we have more time off to focus on those things."
One of just three returning upperclassmen, York will play a vital role in the youth movement from the setter position as she continues to groom the freshmen and begins to incorporate the signees in the fall.
"It's always good when you can bring your all-conference setter back," Palileo said. "She'll help out the younger hitters, putting them in position and creating space for them to hit the ball consistently. She'll also help the passers if their passes aren't quite there. She'll know how to set that ball. She'll affect both sides of the game."
Last season, York finished fourth in Division I in total assists (1,441) and sixth in assists per set (11.80), while earning All-Southwest Region and First Team All-C-USA honors. A two-time C-USA Setter of the Week selection, she tallied the fourth-most single-season assists in program history and moved to sixth on the school's all-time assists list.
With one year as team captain under her belt, York looks to continue being a leader for the team on and off the court.
"I'm just trying to be consistent on being someone the team can look for in a time of need or on the court when things get chaotic," York said. "I'm the person who will remind them to just take a deep breath and play the way you know how to play."
York's biggest impact will be felt by early-enrollee setter Kylie Brown, who finds herself in a similar role to York when she joined the team. York came in two months after an impressive freshman class - including Amanda Chamberlain, Holly Milam, Alexis Wright and Mikali Myers - had just finished their rookie season and got to train under the tutelage of star setter Amy Henard. Through three weeks of practicing together, York sees a lot of herself in Brown.
"I struggled with the same things she has when I came in early, so it's kind of cool to see how she's starting and where she might end up in four years," York said. "Her setting technique is overall really good, so I'm excited to see how much better she gets under Pali's system."
Brown has enjoyed learning the new system and making the necessary transitions from playing at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, to playing at North Texas. She cites the level of play around her as the biggest difference so far.
"In high school, you might be playing with a few Division I-level players," Brown said. "Everyone's a lot better and it's more intense, but it's been good. I'm glad I came in early so I can get the hang of everything before the fall."
Palileo is optimistic that bringing Brown in early to learn from York will shorten the learning curve, but it's not going to come just from observing her from the other side of the net.
"Kylie needs to do her job of reflecting on some of the things she sees in practice, as well as making sure to ask Karley questions," Palileo said. "Not only about volleyball, but also things like how to manage your time and other things that can relieve the stress when it comes to volleyball. Karley and I have talked about how things were when she was a freshman, so we can bring Kylie along at a faster pace."
Looking ahead to the 2018 season, Palileo likes where his team is headed and where they'll stack up among the conference. The early favorites will likely be North Texas and powerhouse Western Kentucky, despite each team losing three of their four all-conference players.
"With the team we're going to have and the experience we have coming back at the skill positions, it's going to be about how fast we can implement the new players and build that chemistry on and off the court," Palileo said. "What was special about last year's team is their ability to bond off the court and challenge each other on the court.
"It's a good time to be young."