Feb 22, 2016 02:35PM
● By Dia
By Ej Holland
Photos by BluDoor Studio
Mitchell took over as head volleyball coach at Southlake Carroll in 2014 after leading Lovejoy to a 315-55 record and five consecutive state titles (2008-2012).
Simply put, Mitchell is a winner, and that championship pedigree is something he wants to instill at Southlake Carroll. The Dragons already had one of the best volleyball programs in the state prior to bringing on Mitchell. After two seasons at the helm of the Lady Dragons, he has a 86-8 (.915) record including an undefeated (12-0) district championship this season.
But Mitchell’s goal isn’t to just win; he wants to take Southlake Carroll to the next level. And that means competing in and winning state championships.
“The vision here is to create an experience where players walk away women of integrity and character,” Mitchell says. “But we also want them to have competed for championships year in and year out. Yes, we’re going to win a lot of matches here, but we want it to go beyond that.”
“We want players to be proud that they were a part of the program. And a part of that is winning state championships. I came here to win championships and help Southlake Carroll break through the barrier. That’s the goal, and that’s the plan,” he says.
If the 2015 season was any indication of what’s to come, the future is certainly bright at Southlake Carroll. The Dragons finished the year ranked No. 12 nationally and No. 2 in the state, according to MaxPreps.
The Lady Dragons proved worthy of their billing as they knocked off a number of state-ranked programs throughout the season. Without question, some of the best high school volleyball in the nation is played in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex.
Lady Dragon Volleyball 2015 District 7-6A Accolades:
District Champions (12-0)
Coach of the Year: Ryan Mitchell
MVP: Haley Hallgren
Newcomer of the Year: Nailah Gordon
Blocker of the Year: Asjia O’Neal
First Team All-District: Megan Porter, Remy Fairchild, Brayden Gruenewald
“Texas in general is a hotbed of volleyball talent,” Mitchell says. “It’s right up there as the best of the country along with California. And so much of that talent is right here in the Metroplex. There are so many great teams here and so much talent. You can never take a night off or you’ll get beat.”
And that especially rang true this season. Southlake Carroll got a taste of just how tough competition throughout the state was in non-district play as they faced off against not only Dallas-area powers but quality teams in Houston and San Antonio.
The Lady Dragons opened up the season with a dominating 3-0 win over Richardson Pearce and overcame some adversity in a close 3-2 victory over Plano West before rattling off five straight victories in the Pearland Tournament.
At 7-0, Southlake Carroll appeared to truly be one of the country’s elite teams. But the Dragons were humbled a bit as they lost two of their next four games to Clear Creek (2-0) and Plano (3-1).
Facing a bit of adversity, the team really leaned on senior leader and outside hitter Megan Porter, who finished the season with 321 kills. The Texas State commit was named First-Team All District and to the Under Armour All- American team.
“Megan really helped lead the team this year,” Mitchell says. “All season long, she was the voice of the team. She held everyone accountable, and they followed her. Megan has such a sweet spirit, so she connected well to everyone on the team.”
Senior leadership also came from fellow First Team All-District performers Brayden Gruenewald and Remy Fairchild, who helped guide the team back to form in the Allen Tournament, knocking off Frisco Independence, Rockwall, Wylie East, Highland Park and Colleyville Heritage—all games were set sweeps.
The Dragons then defeated state-ranked Coppell, 3-1, in the semifinals before ultimately falling to Allen in the championship game.
Southlake Carroll, however, would bounce back with a statement performance in the PSA Lone Star Circle of Champions Tournament as it got its revenge on Allen with a 2-0 set sweep and won the tournament title.
The Dragons wrapped up non-district play by defeating Mitchell’s former program, Lovejoy, in a statement 3-0 victory and breezing by Rockwall and Trophy Club Byron Nelson.
“My philosophy as a coach is in order to be the best you have to beat the best,” Mitchell says. “We schedule tough. We want to be battle-tested. We want to put our kids in situations where we have to compete night in and night out. We played in three of the toughest tournaments in the state to get ready for district.”
Mitchell adds that he feels the team ‘got better each and every time we stepped on the court.’ And that certainly helped come district play. Heading into its first game against L.D. Bell, Southlake Carroll looked exactly the way a perennial power should.
The Dragons pounded the Blue Raiders to win, 3-0. It was the first of 12 straight victories—all were 3-0 set sweeps with the exception of a 3-1 win over state-ranked Coppell in the finale.
“After finishing second in district last year, we kind of reestablished the goal of winning another district title,” Mitchell says. “We were able to do that and do it in convincing fashion, which was a really neat experience. It’s something that we didn’t take lightly.”
Southlake Carroll took down fellow nationally ranked program Dripping Springs in a playoff warm-up before starting the post season for real. The Dragons swept DeSoto in bi-district play and defeated a familiar opponent in Allen in the area round, 3-1.
The Dragons’ season, however, came to a sudden halt in the regional quarterfinals when they were upset in the third round by McKinney Boyd—a team they swept in the area round a year ago—in a heartbreaking 3-2 loss.
“We were playing our best volleyball, but we had a lot of unforced errors in that game,” Mitchell says. “Any time you don’t reach your goal of winning a state championship, there is a hint of disappointment. But I’m proud of the girls and what they were able to do as a team and individually.”
Southlake Carroll might not have reached the ultimate goal, but the vision remains the same. And Mitchell is already gearing up for next season.
“I’m pumped,” he says. “Two weeks after the Boyd loss, I was already thinking about lineups and rosters. I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s what champions do. When you get knocked off a horse, you have to get back on it again.”
The Dragons return a good nucleus of players, including outside hitter Haley Hallgren and middle blocker Asjia O’Neal.
Hallgren was named the 7-6A District MVP this season after recording 350 kills and 244 digs and is currently committed to USC to play beach volleyball. O’Neal, the daughter of former NBA star Jermaine O’Neal, shined as a sophomore and was an underclassmen All-American.
“With Haley, words don’t do her justice,” Mitchell says. “She’s a such a well-rounded player. She’s dynamic and her skillset sets her apart. Ajia developed over the season and was able to take over games later in the year.”
With Hallgren and O’Neal back in the fold as well as a multitude of other experienced players, Southlake Carroll will once again be a preseason favorite to win the district title and make a deep playoff run.
So what is it going to take for the Dragons to take the final step and get over the hump?
“It starts with a belief that they can take the next step,” Mitchell says. “It’s getting there. We need to find ways to deal and manage expectations, so there isn’t pressure on our players and coaches come playoff time. We just have to keep working on that.
“Every year we’re starting the year with an opportunity to win that state title. It will happen. We’re going to keep striving. We’re not going to be scared just because we could fall short.”