Most people expect to see teams full of seniors in varsity sports. Sometimes there are a number of talented juniors, and maybe even a sophomore or two. Once in a while, a special freshman might make his or her way onto the roster.
But even at a private school, you probably wouldn’t expect to find eighth graders. And at Academy at the Lakes, there isn’t a single eighth-grader on their varsity volleyball team: There are actually five of them. And four are starters.
But if opponents think they can take the young team for granted, the Wildcats say that would be a big mistake.
“I hope they don’t underestimate us,” said Julia Mollick, one of the starting eighth-graders on the volleyball team. “If we didn’t have some of them (young players), we wouldn’t have the team we have today. We’re a lot better with them.”
The older players have embraced the addition of their young teammates, Mollick said, offering advice and support as they prepare to face juniors and seniors from other schools.
While starting young talent has been good for team chemistry, it’s not a decision the coach made easily. Brian Gonzales, now in his second season with the team, had to really think about front-loading his varsity squad with eighth-graders.
“I went back and forth a little bit,” said Gonzales, who has nearly a decade of volleyball coaching experience. “I didn’t want to put that much pressure on them. I wanted to make sure they could handle that, being as young as they are.”
But after going through school-wide tryouts, those players emerged as the best options for the team, and he didn’t want them to be held back due to their age.
The need for experience also played a role in his decision, Gonzales said. While the girls could have participated as junior varsity players, the level of competition is very different and he didn’t think it would prepare them for high school-level opponents.
So far, he believes the girls have adjusted well to being varsity players, and meshed well as a motivated team. Mollick, who only started playing volleyball a couple of years ago, supports that belief with a real passion for her chosen sport.
“When you’re up in the air and you’re hitting that ball, I love it,” she said. “When I’m playing, my mind is clear.”
While Academy at the Lakes has had an up-and-down start to the season — they started at 3-6 after playing some big schools — Gonzales also has an eye toward the future when it comes to his team. With growing experience and years of eligibility left for his young athletes, he sees successful seasons in the future for the academy’s volleyball program.
“Two or three years down the road we can really have something there if we keep them all together,” he said.
Mollick agrees. She’s enjoying her time on the varsity team this year, but she knows the team could be something special if the young players grow and compete together in the future.
“I can’t wait to see how far we get,” she said.