By MIKE PHILLIPS / Corsicana Sun —
Somewhere between all the laughing and singing and dancing (yes, dancing) on the bus Navarro’s volleyball team grew even closer.
That’s what 17 road games in a row will do to you.
“We are way better as a team,” said Alice Bermudez, a sophomore who has seen just how much the Bulldogs have grown this year. “We learned a lot. We matured. I know I matured. I know as one of the leaders that I always have to keep my head up no matter how hard it gets. And the team matured as a team. We didn’t give up on each other.”
Seems like Ronda Shirley knew what she was doing when she put together a schedule so demanding it would either make or break her team.
But of course, Shirley, a Hall of Fame coach, knew exactly what she was doing, and as Navarro hits the final stretch of its regular season her team has become stronger on and off the court, and several players redefined their roles on the team.
“People have stepped up like we needed them to,” Shirley said. “Different people at different times have stepped up. I think that’s what a team is supposed to be about. They have figured out how to play as a team.”
Not only did Shirley put her team on a long road, but the schedule was loaded with nationally-ranked teams and teams that arguably should be nationally ranked.
It was no accident — it was a well conceived plan to put Navarro to not one test, but several tests. It wasn’t a Baptism by fire, it was one Baptism after another after another.
Along the way Navarro defeated the No. 2, No. 3, No. 10 and No. 13 teams in the nation, and also beat four more teams that are just outside the Top 20.
It was a lot to ask from a program that went 6-31 a year ago, but Shirley wanted her kids to face the best.
Navarro went 12-5 over the stretch, and although no one talked about it, the Bulldogs played with some players out with injuries. That’s what the tough stretch was all about.
“Playing through adversity and having players out and having people playing out of position and having them step,” Shirley said. “Playing through adversity and figuring out we are a team.”
Several players stepped up, especially Viktoria Velika, who emerged as an outside hitter and gave Navarro another weapon at the net to go along with Carolina Barbosa, who has been a force all year for the Bulldogs, and Bermudez has been a solid anchor all season as the team’s Libero.
“There were a lot of players who stepped up,” Shirley said. “Obviously Viktoria stepped up. Alexis (Wiley) has been coming along. She’s kind of a quite factor in the middle and has really played well. Paola (Lopez-Sanabria) has stepped up like we needed her to and Hannah Barosh and Paola have alternated. It has been a good combination.”
Then there’s Bia Berti, who had a strong run at setter during the entire 17-game stretch, including an incredible performance in the Blinn tournament, where she had 52 assists in the victory over Blinn and 134 in the tournament.
“Bia has done a tremendous job,” Shirley said. “More than anything she brings a calm to the team. It’s like when you have a quarterback or a point guard you look to.”
Shirley’s kids learned something else along the way.
“They have gotten over being intimidated by the name on the jersey,” said Shirley, referring to how many teams shrink when they play a powerhouse team with a reputation. That didn’t happen on the road. Instead, Navarro looked the powerhouse teams in the eye.
There were times when the Bulldogs slipped against the lesser teams.
“We played some teams and we played down to their level,” Bermudez said. “That was the worst part of (the long road stretch) when we didn’t play our best and lost to teams we were supposed to beat. But the best part was coming out of it. The great thing was we knew how to come out of it. We went 2-2 in the Tyler Tournament, and then came out of it the next week and won all four in the Blinn Tournament.”
The long and grinding road put more than miles on the Bulldogs, who emerged together on the court and emerged from the trip feeling better about themselves than anyone could have imagined.
“We’re not just a team. We’re a family,” Velika said. “It was great because of the feeling we got. I can’t even describe it. The whole road, the whole journey â€¦ It was so exciting. I never dreamed it would be so great.”
Navarro is now 23-8 and ranked No. 13 in the nation, and faces the final stretch of this remarkable season. The Bulldogs haven’t nailed down a spot in the Region XIV Tournament yet. Only three of the four teams in the North Zone will earn a berth and all four teams (Panola, TVCC, Tyler and Navarro) are nationally ranked in the Top 20.
The Bulldogs, who are 3-1 in zone play, play Panola at 7 p.m. Wednesday in their first home game since Sept. 13, and face Tyler at home at 2 p.m. Saturday in two critical matches to end their zone season.
“This is the most important part of the season,” Bermudez said. “We are more of a team right now. I feel like everything is clicking.”
That was whole idea. Shirley wanted her team to be ready to win down the stretch to get to the region tournament, and beyond.
“We have a long way we can still go,” Shirley said.
Just call it the next road trip.