At The Gregory School, August means new classes, a new schedule, and a new grade for students. For the 2016 TGS women’s volleyball team, it also means a new season.

Starting before any students even set foot on campus, the volleyball girls ran, dived, and had more than a few sweat sessions in El Mirador. It’s all about pre-season work, because what the girls put in behind the scenes is often the most crucial component of their improvement and success as a team.

Having lost senior setter Janessa Leon-Guerrero (‘16) last spring, the Hawks were anxious in the pre-season to find someone to fill her role.

Head coach Angela Vande Mheen said, “We have five of our six returning starters coming back this season. Janessa, who I thought was going to be difficult to replace, is the only starting player we lost. Rachel Gonzales has stepped into that role really nicely. We also have Chloé Goorman and Nay Davis, who are working hard in that [setter’s] spot, as well. We won’t have any problem filling that role.”

Vande Mheen expressed the thrill of coaching this year’s team, noting how the team will stay strong and connected in future years. She is excited by the idea of being able to look down the road and see the enduring dedication and commitment of her lineup, as many of her players are rising sophomores and juniors.

It is impossible to talk about dedication and commitment without highlighting sophomore Anna Valencia. Valencia has stepped into the role of Varsity Co-Captain along with senior Devin Johnston.

Valencia’s passion for volleyball began at a young age. Her sister was a starting Varsity middle, and her mother played in college and coached high school teams. Anna’s love for the game runs in her family.

However, this doesn’t mean that she has let her success go to her head. As a smart, driven player, she focused in on the most minute details of her game when the season began in August: talking on the court, finding just the right foot placement before a hit, and locating the perfect zone to serve toward are just a few of her talents.

“I think that one of the biggest strengths on our team is that we’re all so close. On the court, it’s really easy for us to feel comfortable with everybody and trust each other. We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which makes it easier for us to step in if someone isn’t doing well,” Valencia said.

It’s true – with a team such as theirs at a school such as ours, closeness is inevitable. The girls are together both on and off the court, which makes the experience more fun.

Knowing how determined she was on the bus, her teammates feel ecstatic when junior Elena Acuña serves her fifth ace in a row. It’s easier for them to celebrate her kills when they can recall her talking about their opponents during lunch that day.

It’s true for each member of the team, too – whether it is Johnston’s killer tips over the net, junior Brandi Swenson’s blocking, sophomore Nina Armstrong’s stellar passes as the team’s libero, or Gonzales’ perfect sets, the team is stacked.

The connections created through time spent outside of practice cement the bonds among the players.

“I want them to be successful,” Vande Mheen said. “It’s really because I like them as people more than I want to win the game. I want that for them.”

Building connections is more essential than ever this year as the Hawks head into their 2016 season. Facing teams like Pusch Ridge, the infamous St. David, Desert Christian, and Tanque Verde will require focus and effort on the part of every player.

Valencia acknowledged this, saying, “St. David is one of the hardest and one of the biggest games in our season because it’s such a rivalry with TGS. We want to beat them so badly. We’ll have to fight in those games.”

With such a strong, passionate group of women, the Hawks shouldn’t have any problem rising to the top this season.