High School Volleyball

Early playoff exit in 2018 has lit a fire in Byron Nelson during 2019 volleyball season

Go find a team with a better winning percentage in the past season and a half than Byron Nelson.

You probably would be out of luck.

But the Bobcats are only worried about one number, being No. 1 at the end of the year. That goal last season was derailed after an early exit to Flower Mound, the eventual Class 6A state champion.

“Just thinking about it gives us a bad taste,” said junior outside hitter Charitie Luper, who is committed to UCLA. “Anytime we hear Flower Mound or any of the girls’ names.”

Byron Nelson lost 3-2 in the regional quarterfinals. Flower Mound won 15-13 in the final set.

“That was a tough loss,” said senior Paige Flickinger, who is committed to LSU. “It’s still a bad taste in our mouths. We’re still not over that, but we’ve been working hard to get back there.”

The Bobcats finished 42-2 last season, but returned a strong core that included Luper and Flickinger along with senior libero/defensive specialist Gia Santini and senior hitter Skyler McKinnon, who is committed to Harding, that has helped the team to a 32-1 start.

Byron Nelson has won 24 straight games and started district 2-0 with sweeps over Guyer and Carroll.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” coach Bri Barker-Groth said. “We’re not worried about the rankings. There are so many great programs in our district and in Region 1 that it’s going to be a fight every single night. We have a different mindset and I think our girls have done a great job so far.”

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Byron Nelson junior setter Payton Chamberlain Matthew Smith Special to the Star-Telegram

Contributors all around

After sharing time at setter in 2018, junior Payton Chamberlain is playing the position full time this season. The recent Wyoming commit has been the biggest difference.

“Payton is honestly kicking our team into the next gear,” Barker-Groth said after the Bobcats won the Northwest ISD Classic on Aug. 17. “She’s also one of the best blockers on the team.”

Chamberlain leads the Dallas-Fort Worth area in assists this season with over 1,100. She’s already passed her total from her first two years with the Bobcats.

“I gave her the reigns this year and we’ve been figuring it out together. She’s come alive and has done a great job,” said Barker-Groth of Chamberlain, who had 47 assists vs. Carroll on Tuesday.

While people know about Luper and Flickinger, who was named Texas Girls Coaches Association player of the year and Gatorade Texas player of the year, Santini and McKinnon have gone to another level as well.

“Gia has stepped up. Last year was her first year at libero so coming into this season, she has those expectations and has handled it well. Her passing and defense has improved,” Barker-Groth said.

Santini, who was voted DFW player of the week in August, is second on the team in digs, and is on pace to set a career high.

“Last year has really motivated and lit a fire in us,” Santini said. “We’ve learned to persevere this season and it taught us no matter what, we always need to fight as a team.”

McKinnon finished last season strong, averaging more than 10 kills in her final seven games.

She’s third on the team in kills this year.

“Skyler was our secret weapon last season. No one really knew about her so she was able to score a lot of points for us under the radar,” Barker-Groth said. “She gives us that extra punch when we don’t go to our outsides.”

Byron Nelson senior libero/defensive specialist Gia Santini. Matthew Smith Special to the Star-Telegram

Tournament season

Along with winning the Northwest Classic for the second straight year, Byron Nelson shared the championship trophy at the Lone Star Circle of Champions in Plano.

“That Northwest tournament has quality teams every year and it’s a goal for a lot of teams just to make the gold bracket,” Barker-Groth said. “It felt like we had a tougher route this year with no easy pools. We had Mansfield on the first day and they ended up in the semifinals.

“It just shows you the quality of teams not only in the state, but specifically DFW. I’m proud of the girls. They found ways to win and that’s the difference with great teams. You may not have your best game, but you find ways to win.”

The Bobcats began the season with a trip to Hawaii, where they finished in second place.

“Hawaii is a different style. I call it beautiful ball because it’s so controlled and the ball never seems to touch the floor,” Barker-Groth said. “Those girls are small, but mighty. We saw some similarities with Texas, especially the defense, but the biggest difference was we had to continue to battle and those rallies were long.”

“It was an experience,” Santini added. “We found different ways to score and it unlocked new doors for us.”

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Born and raised in Hawaii, Brian Gosset graduated from Northern Arizona University with a degree in journalism before coming to Texas in 2014. He’s covered high school sports — yes, pretty much every high school sport — for the Star-Telegram ever since.