Before the Rouse volleyball team convened for its first preseason practice, the Raiders engaged in some mental exercises.
There’s little doubt that Rouse, bolstered by six players who have pledged to NCAA Division I teams, has the talent to travel deep into the state playoffs later this fall. The Raiders drop from Class 6A to Class 5A this season as a result of UIL realignment.
On the eve of the 2016 season, Rouse ranks No. 2 — trailing only Westlake — in the American-Statesman’s annual preseason poll.
While Westlake perennially contends for a state title, though, Rouse is still seeking its first postseason victory. So maybe the Raiders, who posted a 31-17 mark last season, could benefit from a little mental sharpening.
“The mental game has been the hardest part for me,” said outside hitter Elan McCall, a 6-foot junior. “When things start to go downhill, we have to learn to stay in the moment, and not travel down a selfish route by not helping your teammates.”
Senior setter Kaliegh Skopal, junior right side hitter Danielle Cole and junior middle blocker Ava Bell echoed McCall’s words.
“Now is the time for us to take control of the program instead of just going along for the ride,” said Bell, who’s 6-1.
This summer, Raiders coach Jacob Thompson introduced his players to a series of books written by Brian Cain, a best-selling author, speaker, coach and expert in the fields of mental conditioning, peak performance and character education. Cain has shared his message with Olympic athletes and players from the NFL, NBA and NHL.
Thompson asked every player at Rouse to read “The Mental Game of Volleyball” and “The Daily Dominator (Masters of the Mental Game).”
“Physicality-wise, we can compete with anyone,” said Thompson, who’s entering his ninth season with the Raiders, “but after losing in the first round of the playoffs the last two seasons (to Westlake in 2014 and Lake Travis in 2015), I knew we needed to get our mental side fixed.”
Before every team function — matches, practices, weight-training sessions — Rouse players recite a team creed they created that includes phrases about respect, accountability, integrity, dedication, enthusiasm and service.
“We spent one day a week in the classroom working on the six inches between our ears,” said Thompson, who visited Cain at the author’s home in Southlake, a Dallas suburb, and continues to seek Cain’s advice regarding mental conditioning.
His current team is the most talented one he’s coached at Rouse, Thompson said, and few high school squads can boast six players who are bound for college volleyball programs. Skopal (Illinois-Chicago), Cole (Washington), Bell (North Carolina), McCall (TCU), senior libero Mallory Vargas (UT-San Antonio) and junior defensive specialist Katy Northcut (Texas Tech) make the Raiders a heavy favorite to finish atop District 19-5A.
Just last month, the Texas Association of Volleyball Coaches named Skopal, Cole, Bell and McCall as preseason all-state selections.
Skopal (556 assists, 236 digs last season) ranks among the best setters in Central Texas. McCall (377 kills, 650 digs), Bell (321 kills, 80 blocks) and Cole (262 kills, 109 blocks) anchor the Raiders’ front line while Vargas (629 digs) and Northcut (363 digs) are defensive warriors.
“When you think about the potential we have on this team, it would be dissapointing if we didn’t reach state,” Skopal said. “The only way we wouldn’t be disappointed is by knowing we left it all on the court.”