MERKEL — The gym at Merkel High School is no longer just a basketball court.
What used to just have free-throw lines and 3-point lines now has volleyball lines and holes for a net at half-court.
The program dissolved in 1987, but after widespread community support, the school sent a volleyball team onto the court in 2022.
For the first time in 35 years, Merkel hosted a volleyball match Tuesday.
In their first competition in almost four decades — way before any of their players were alive — the Lady Badgers defeated Trent in three sets (25-10, 25-12, 25-7).
“I definitely was really nervous the first practice because I didn’t think we’d ever be this ready for our first game,” junior Havyn Ruiz said. “Tonight definitely changed all of that.”
Building a program
For the reboot, Merkel Athletic Director Will Kates looked to Mitzi Bell to lead the program. Bell was previously head coach at Sweetwater after 22 years of coaching elsewhere in West Texas.
Only three players on Merkel’s roster came into the season with any volleyball experience, so Bell admitted there were growing pains and teaching moments early on.
“The biggest struggle was communication,” Bell said. “The girls didn’t realize how much you have to talk in volleyball.” Those growing pains, though, didn’t last long.
“I don’t think there was a day last week during two-a-days that I didn’t cry because of their progress,” Bell said. “There’s so much that it entailed, teaching high school varsity level to girls who have never played.
“For them to be picking it up, they’re just athletes. They’re hard workers, they’re determined, they’re competitive. It makes my job easy when you have kids like that.”
In addition to Bell’s leadership helping the team grow, the three players — Ruiz, KK Darby and Avery Martin — helped the newcomers adjust to their new sport.
“It’s been a huge help for sure,” senior Sydnee Barns said. “There are so many rules in volleyball, so they’ve helped a lot with that and just encouragement and telling us where to go.”
Ruiz credited the newcomers for being receptive.
“It’s definitely been easy,” she said. “They get around better than I thought and they’ve picked it up so well.”
The Lady Badgers’ quick learning was on display Tuesday. They cruised in all three sets and the girls never panicked when they did lose points.
“They’re just transitioning to this sport like they’ve been playing it for years,” Bell said.
The community showed out for Merkel’s Monumental match: Almost every seat on the Badgers’ side of the court was filled.
In particular, the student section was full. It was island theme night for Badger students, so dozens came decked out in Tropical shirts and leis while hollering in support of Merkel.
Barns didn’t know what to expect as far as fan turnout. But she was pleasantly surprised to see the gym so packed for Lady Badgers volleyball.
“It was amazing,” Barnes said. “I was really nervous that we’d walk in and there would be no one there. I looked over and saw them and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is for real.'”
With the help of the Merkel football team, Kates plans to make sure every volleyball match is similarly packed with students.
“My guys come in to watch film on Saturday, and then I’ll send them over here and make sure they’re representing,” said Kates, who also serves as Merkel’s head football coach.
Bell added, “They create the energy. We’re going to pay it right back on Friday nights and they’re going to pay it back on Saturday mornings. The spirit is amazing.”
It wasn’t just students cheering on the Lady Badgers, though. Dozens of MHS alumni were in attendance as Merkel got the three-set win.
“It was a big deal for a lot of people,” Bell said.
Continuing to grow
Merkel’s passion for volleyball showed during the summer: Around 80-90 kids attended the Badgers’ summer volleyball camp.
At the high-school level, Merkel already has 34 players between three teams. And in middle school, there are 60 volleyball players currently signed up to play between seventh and eighth graders.
“It’s just overwhelming, the passion and interest for volleyball already,” Bell said.
Despite how new the program is, the coaches and the girls have lofty goals.
“We definitely hope to get to state,” Ruiz said
Bell didn’t go as far as that, but the Coach believes her team is strong enough to make a playoff run.
“We want to win a gold ball, whether it’s a district championship or round one,” Bell said. “(Our goal is) to be in the Playoffs and Chase gold balls from here on out.”
Regardless of how far Merkel’s team goes this fall, Kates knows the Lady Badgers are well on their way to making a quality program.
“I do think we’re going to build something special,” Kates said. “If we have Coach Bell for one, two, four years, we’re excited she’s here to get it off the ground and build a foundation of belief and confidence for our girls going forward.”