Along with all other fall sports excepting football, the Bulldog volleyball program is a bit in flux right now.
With the NMAA having bumped the entirety of their schedules — including the offseason — back this year, head coach Alan Williams and his staff began the 2023-24 school year Monday with something they’re used to having settled by now missing: namely, their varsity roster.
The programs aren’t allowed to finalize their various teams until Saturday, meaning a delay in the “getting down to business” portion of a new season. The netters specifically also have another nearly two-week wait ahead before the start of their 2023 campaign.
But while the rearrangements are a bit frustrating, the ‘Dogs and their coaches are doing their best to make the most of what feels like an extended offseason.
“We were able to have a scrimmage on Saturday, so that was fun because we actually got to play somebody different,” Williams said. “But then there’s two more weeks of going back to just practicing until you can actually play a game.
“So we’re just trying to continue getting better even though we’re not playing games. It’s difficult, but we’re keeping our focus on working on our skills during this long stretch.”
If anything, the downtime is a chance for several players to continue acclimating to their new roles following the graduation of five seniors in 2022. That quintet contained some cornerstones of the program over the past several years.
“That was a lot to replace,” Williams said. “Some of those kids had been on varsity for three years and were a part of our  state championship team. But we have two of those girls also still left and have probably seven from last year’s team, several of whom were starters.”
That 2022 squad was a District 4-AAAA runner-up and entered the Class 4A State Tournament as a three seed behind top-ranked — and eventual state champion — Goddard and No. 2 St. Pius. After drawing a bye through the opening round, they’d topple No. 6 Los Alamos, 3-1, before coming up against the Sartans in the quarters.
Unfortunately, a 3-1 loss there sent the girls in orange into a losers’ bracket quarter, and they were unable to find their rhythm against a scrappy fifth-ranked Pojoaque Valley team, falling in straight sets.
Intent on improving their playoff performance this season, the 2023 Bulldogs had a solid summer, with healthy numbers and plenty of participation.
“We did some good things,” Williams said. “We had a lot of what I call local tournaments in Carlsbad, Roswell, Portales, but then we took a weekend in Moriarty to see some teams from the Albuquerque area. We have around 35 to 40 kids out and a lot of girls participating, so that was nice to see.”
A sizable sophomore class is adding greatly to those numbers this year, both comprising and mixing in with the team’s healthy core of returners.
“I’m pleased that we have a lot of girls returning from last year’s team because it’s really been helping us keep things going forward while we wait for the season to start,” said Williams. “We can go ahead and run a lot of the things we did last year, since they’re already comfortable with the Xs and Os.
“Then we have a few new faces that’re coming along, and so it’s exciting. It’s fun to have some new kids out there, and it definitely helps having those veterans.”
Once the games begin, the Artesia netters will head to Carlsbad Aug. 29 for their traditional season opener against the Class 5A Cavegirls before hosting their home opener Aug. 31 versus Alamogordo at Bulldog Pit.
“Then it’s right into tournament season, which is pretty much the whole month of September,” said Williams. “We’ll get a lot of playing in at that time and be able to find out what we need to do before we get into district.”
D4 play will begin Oct. 24 in Portales, and Williams is anticipating another battle between the Bulldogs, the Ramettes and the Rockets for district supremacy this season.
“Our district has won the state championship the last two years,” said the coach. “Goddard, like us, lost some key players, but Portales has quite a few back and was competitive last year, so I think it’s going to come down to the three of us again this year.
“I think we have a good shot at competing for a district championship this season. That’s definitely a goal.”
Past that, the ‘Dogs are perennial contenders for the top prize but know they’ll have their work cut out for them between now and then. Continued, steady improvement is key, and it all starts Aug. 29 with their own version of the Eddy County War.
“Usually, we get to play Carlsbad the same week as the football team, and it’s always fun to beat them in football and then turn around and beat them in volleyball, too,” said the coach. “This time, we have to wait a few weeks, but that just means we can enjoy the football win a little longer this year.”