BURGIN — The Burgin volleyball team has spent three years climbing to new heights, but the hills only get steeper from here.
But even as the going gets tougher, coach Maggie McKnight is pushing her team that much harder.
The Bulldogs became the area’s most surprising team — and one of the best — a year ago, and most of the key players from last season are back. Because of their experience and success, they are starting a little farther ahead of previous Burgin teams.
“We’ve got a strong group of girls now that’s been playing for three or four years, so rather than having to repeat fundamentals at the beginning of every season, we’re able to just take that next step and push ourselves as a team,” McKnight said Tuesday after Burgin opened its season with a victory over Boyle County.
At the same time, both the coach and her players have pushed their expectations up a bit as well.
“I think we all have,” McKnight said Tuesday. “The two (seniors) that we lost last season, we were able to kind of transition new players into their roles and into those spots pretty easily. They expect to be stronger this year, I expect them to be stronger this year, the only thing we’re not really sure of is what to expect out of our district.”
That remains to be seen, as realignment means Burgin will compete against a couple of new teams in its bid for a third straight 46th District championship.
But McKnight knows what she has: a handful of dedicated veterans who are in their third season together and who have made their team a source of pride for their small school. After the Bulldogs won only six matches in 2009, the program’s first varsity season, they went 18-14 in 2010 and 24-10 in 2011.
They kicked off this season Tuesday with a 25-21, 24-26, 25-20, 25-14 victory over Boyle — matches are best-of-five sets beginning this season — in which they got to apply some of the new things they have practiced.
“I knew that we would have a strong core group coming back, that we were going to be a strong squad foundationally, but so far early this season we’ve been able to expand some of our routine, try out some new things. I was excited to be able to try those tonight,” McKnight said.
This year’s team is led by three seniors, middle hitter Randi Burke and outside hitters Libby Dismeaux and Taylor Sanders, and the program has about 15 players — about 10 percent of the school’s enrollment.
“We had a large group last year, and some of them chose not to return, but the ones that did are really committed to working hard and improving with every practice and every game,” McKnight said.
This year’s squad includes a group of junior varsity players whom McKnight said are dedicated to improving and helping the varsity players do the same.
“They come out ready to play, they are competitive, and we’ve been able to see the payoff of their hard work,” she said.
The season-opening win was a bumpy ride for Burgin, especially in the first two sets, when McKnight said the Bulldogs were “a little flat” against a Boyle team they didn’t face last season and couldn’t beat in either of their first two seasons.
“They were really anxious to come out and play against Boyle tonight. This is a team that every time we’ve competed against them they’ve been close matches, and the girls give me a lot of grief because i played for Boyle in high school,” McKnight said. “It’s always a fun and exciting match.”
It was chapter one of a tougher schedule that McKnight hopes will prepare the Bulldogs for even more postseason success.
“What we consider to be our No. 1 goal is we want to make it out of first round of region. That’s something we’ve never done before, and that’s kind of our next Everest,” she said.
There are other goals along the way, including a return trip to the All “A” Classic and another district crown.
But McKnight knows the road won’t be easy. East Jessamine and West Jessamine have been added to their reconfigured district, and she said she thinks many of the local teams the Bulldogs will face are on the rise.
“I think a lot of the teams locally were really young, so we’re expecting the competition to be a lot tougher this season. But we think that’ll prepare us for postseason. That’s only going to make us better,” she said.
She said they are also better for the experience they got in a summer tournament at Lindsey Wilson College — “because there were a lot of regional contenders and regional champions that we actually got to see and compete against” — and for a good preseason filled with focused practices — at least for the most part.
“We definitely have our moments of needing to refocus,” McKnight said. “We get a little goofy, we have a lot of fun, but for the most part we have our sights set pretty high this season.”