Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
When new coach Samantha Mendez arrived at Memorial High School in 2015, the volleyball program was a mess. The team had lost 38 of 42 games the previous season and 15 of 16 in district play. Since 2012, the Minutemen’s record stood at 19-98.
No one could remember the last time Memorial won more games than it lost. But this was known: The school had not advanced to the playoffs since 2001, the year some of Mendez’s freshmen were born.
Mendez, 30, inherited little height, athleticism, and skill. Her players were raised in a school district with one of the state’s highest poverty rates, Edgewood Independent School District. Few families could afford to pay for club volleyball, which hindered player development and the team's ability to compete.
Mendez also needed to change the culture. Players did not study film of opponents. They didn't stay after practice to put in extra work. They treated volleyball like another class, showing up, sometimes late, and checking out, often quickly.
The Minutemen showed modest improvement under Mendez, winning two district games the first season, five the next. Then came a historic breakthrough. Memorial clinched a playoff berth this season and tied Highlands for the District 28-5A championship, the school’s first district title since 1975.
“It’s just crazy that it's been that long since we won district,” said junior middle blocker Tiffany Lopez. “I am very excited.”
How did Mendez turn the team around? She focused on developing five freshmen her first season, built the current team around them and changed the culture. Today, players put in extra time after practice, study film and rally behind the talent and leadership of Lopez, their star player.
“When she’s on,” Mendez said, “my kids are just on fire and they feed off her energy. Her consistency on the court is what drives the kids to get the ball to her and keep going.”
The Minutemen finished the regular season 28-6 and 14-2 in district after going 11-22 and 5-11 in 2016. They won a coin flip with Highlands to secure the No. 1 seed in Monday’s first-round playoff game at 7:30 p.m. in Schulenburg. Their opponent: No. 4 seed Fulshear, a team from Fort Bend County playing its inaugural varsity season.
What a matchup: Memorial, which hasn’t won a district title in 42 years, vs. Fulshear, which has never been to the playoffs. “They may be a fourth seed,” Mendez said, “but they look pretty good.”
Thalia Esparza, a senior defensive specialist, remains in awe of the history her team has made. Her mother, Marisa was not alive the last time Memorial won a district title. “My mom,” Thalia said, “was born in 1976.”
Mendez was born in 1987. A native of Natalia, she did not grow up wanting to coach. She dreamed of becoming a nurse. That changed when she agreed to play volleyball for Huston-Tillotson, which did not have a nursing program. Unsure what to study, Mendez stepped into her future when Huston-Tillotson coach Ronnie Kaase asked her to help him coach a club volleyball team.
“I realized,” Mendez said, “that I was good at it.”
After earning a degree in kinesiology, Mendez spent a year as a substitute teacher, coached volleyball for two seasons at Pearsall High, then spotted an online ad for a job at Memorial.
When she arrived in 2015, Mendez started to build around five promising freshmen: Lopez, libero Nayeli Goff, right side hitter Kassandra Luna and setters Samantha Rios and Amanda Lopez. She started Tiffany Lopez and Goff on the varsity, put Rios on the junior varsity and allowed Luna and Amanda Lopez to blossom on the freshmen team.
Three years later, these five, along with Thalia Esparza and senior outside hitter Sara Vasquez, form the nucleus of a championship team.
“The girls knew they had the talent,” Mendez said. “They came out with more confidence, worked hard and corrected a lot of errors from last year.”
Esparza is the academic star, a senior with medical school ambition. “I want to be a general surgeon,” she said. “I have all A’s and one B in AP English, which I am pretty upset about.”
Tiffany Lopez is the athletic star, a standout basketball player, who averaged 20 points a game for Holy Cross last season. She started at Memorial as a freshman, transferred to Holy Cross, then returned Memorial, where both her parents graduated.
"I never thought we would go this far," Lopez said. "I’ve grown so close to these girls and to share this moment with them has been amazing."
No player has made a greater impact. The tallest girl on the front line at 5-10, she ranks second on the team with 200 kills and first in blocks with 45. “She had 15 kills against Edison, 15 against Brackenridge, 15 against Lanier, 12 against Highlands,” Mendez said. “She’s just dominating.”
Until this season, volleyball was an afterthought for Lopez. Now she wants to play collegiately. Her aspirations, like those of her teammates, have risen to new heights during this magical season.