There was little doubt that Canyon’s old nemesis — District 26-5A rival Dripping Springs — would be waiting for the Cougarettes in the 2021 Region IV-5A championship final.

After seeing its 2020 season end at the hands of the Lady Tigers, Canyon had made it a goal to battle back to the same round, but this time defeat Dripping Springs to earn a coveted regional title and a spot in the 5A state tournament in Garland. The long-awaited playoff rematch took place Saturday in San Antonio, and the Cougarettes dominated every aspect of the contest on their way to a 3-0 victory that was surprisingly brief.

Senior outside hitter Kyla Malone said she and her teammates were completely locked in.

Canyon Volleyball

Left to right, Canyon Cougarettes junior outside hitter Maya Jones, sophomore setter Megan Hawkins and senior outside hitter Kyla Malone stand for a portrait Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 at the Cougar Den in New Braunfels. The Cougarettes will battle Grapevine in a 5A state semifinal matchup set for 1 p.m. this Friday at the Culwell Center in Garland.


“We had been waiting for that match since we lost to Drip last year,” Malone said. “This time we were a lot more focused and stayed cool, calm and collected.”

The sweep of the Lady Tigers was the latest milestone during Canyon’s dream season, which had already seen the Cougarettes collect an outright district title, set a new program mark for wins in a single season and deliver head coach Heather Sanders her 700th career victory. Sanders, who has guided the program at Canyon since 1999, said her team simply wasn’t going to be denied this time around.

“The girls were on a mission,” Sanders said. “Our theme all year has been, ‘The only way is through.’ We talked about it on two different levels — people are going to have to come through us or we’re going to have to go through them.”

The Cougarettes (43-8) are set to make their first state tournament appearance since 2015 this Friday during a 5A semifinal matchup against Grapevine (21-17) at the Culwell Center in Garland. Canyon’s well-rounded roster and abundance of depth has helped fuel the ride thus far in 2021, as the Cougarettes possess waves of powerful hitters like Malone, senior McKenzie Woitena, junior Maya Jones and junior Danielle Classy, as well as two stifling middle blockers in senior Haley Therien and junior Courtney Pope.

However, it’s been the consistent play of the starting back row — senior Victoria Fontenot, senior Alyssa Koehl and junior Isabell Woo — that has elevated Canyon to new heights this year.

“They fly around on defense and they never get enough credit in my opinion,” Sanders said. “They’re unassuming and get back there and take care of business.”

Sophomore setter Megan Hawkins said the defense plays a huge role in the success of the Cougarettes’ versatile attack.

“Even when we play really tough opponents, they still keep us in system really well and we’re able to set all the hitters,” Hawkins said. “They’re the reason why we’re able to run the offense that we do.”

Sanders has also had the luxury of tailoring her lineup depending on the opponent on the other side of the net. That has led to several strategic changes, like the one that took place prior to a win-or-go-home fifth set versus Leander Rouse during the regional quarterfinals on Nov. 9. 

“That is one of the things that we’ve been able to do really well all season, is look at our opponent and say, ‘Who do we want matched up defensively?’” Sanders said. “We’ve done that all season long, so if we do it in the middle of a playoff match, they don’t freak out. They’re really easy-going and they don’t tend to flip out about much.”

With its season on the line, Canyon cruised past Rouse 15-6 to advance to this past weekend’s Region IV-5A tournament. Jones said it was a blessing in disguise to be pushed to the brink in the third round.

“I think Rouse was the starting point for the rest of the playoff season,” Jones said. “That win really impacted us and got us ready for the upcoming matches.”

The Cougarettes opened play at the regional tournament with a 3-0 sweep of Gregory-Portland before bouncing Dripping Springs a day later. Now, Canyon is preparing for the biggest stage of competition as they travel north to compete as one of 5A’s final four.

“On the very first day, we wrote down goals and one of our goals was to go to the state tournament,” Malone said. “It’s really cool to see that come to fruition.”

The Cougarettes’ 5A semifinal against Grapevine is set for 1 p.m. Friday at the Culwell Center. The winner advances to Saturday’s state championship match at 3 p.m. at the same location against either Lucas Lovejoy or Manvel.

“We feel like if we play the way we played on Saturday, we can play with anybody,” Sanders said. “That’s sort of the mentality we’re going to take to Garland with us.”

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