One couldn’t blame her for feeling, in down times, like the lone wolf, the sole survivor, because truly she’s the only returning starter in red and blue, after graduation gutted the lineup. But rather than wallow in self-pity or despair, Renee Ponce has crunched forward, learning how to lead her youthful EHS teammates – and herself – as a fascinating senior year unfolds on the volleyball court.

And the results are starting to percolate.

The Lady Bobcats faced a key struggle at home Tuesday, key not in the sense that the district standings were in play, but key in that every time EHS works in the preseason, it’s a chance to improve. A mandate to do so.

“Basically, it’s all been really new this year, and that means every game we have to come out and show coach what we are capable of,” said Ponce, who paced a 4-set victory over Sharyland with a variety of outstanding stretches of action. “We have a lot of kids off last year’s JV, almost all newcomers … we might have played a little scared early tonight, not talking. In fact, it was super quiet the first set. But once we started talking more, got the crowd into it, started yelling, it was a lot better.”

After dropping the first set among a stream of mistakes, the Lady ‘Cats gradually gained steam, as Ponce said. One by one the newbies started coming through, making plays, limiting miscues.

“All young players are scared to mess up, to make a mistake,” she said, noting that four years ago she was the same, a freshman project in progress. “But tonight everyone started hitting better as we went along, got more confidence, looking less shaky. We wanted to make coach proud of us, to show her what we had.”

And Deanna Dominguez, coaching like a demon in the wake of massive graduation losses, has noticed the efforts.

“This has been some kind of season so far,” sighed the long-time mentor before the night began. “Even down to the season starting on Wednesday instead of Monday, first time I can remember that happening. We’ve had a lot of uncertainties and I have been looking for the girls to show their progress. They’re getting there.”

Dominguez said that there’s a big difference between practice and the games, especially for an inexperienced group.

“I can see them in practice, the gym, on the weights,” she commented. “And now when it comes to the games, they’re not jumping over boxes, they have to make plays. Bottom line, I told them I don’t care if we lose every game in non-district, as long as we learn and are ready to compete in district.”

The Lady ‘Cats, 6-5 after Tuesday, showed their improvement in a steady performance after the initial hiccups. Utterly unable to handle the Lady Rattler service in the opener, EHS fell 25-12, and as the kids gathered in the huddle afterward, a key juncture of the season had arrived. They simply were not performing. They looked down.

But with Ponce serving and scoring on two kills, the team took a 5-1 lead in set two, settling into a nip-and-tuck battle with the Lady Rattlers. Newcomer Baily Buckner, a transfer from San Antonio in her first appearance, contributed sharp serves and agile movement.

EHS started to tilt the court and get on the offensive, and led 15-13 on a block point from the senior Buckner. Then, down 21-20, Ponce killed off a Julissah Santa Maria set, Buckner dug out a tremendous blast, and Kristen Salinas served up a big ace, sending the Lady ‘Cats to a 25-22 victory. Progress!

Buckner toed the line in the third set and sent some bullets to the wood at the other end. Libero Vianney Trevino came up with a brilliant right-handed desperation save, arm extended, and EHS was up 12-9. After a few of Ponce’s patented deep pushes to the back row, momentum was thick and the home side finished up ahead, 25-17, with little Desiree Sanchez rising to kill one horizontally across net toward the close.

After having begun slowly, the Lady Bobcats were smoking now, putting Sharyland – another perennial power going through a transition – on the defensive. And it felt good. The energy was high in red and blue, the fans were buzzing, and the match was about over.

For the clincher, Ponce and Co, got off to a 10-2 advantage and were never headed, winning 25-18. Ponce was diving all over the court, showing her quickness and moxie. At one point she hit the deck to save one, and leapt back up to eventually end the rally with a devastating two-handed push that tickled the back line for a point. The senior leader was the hammer at the end, launching to her left to make a one-handed save, and then rising for the final kill a few seconds later as the girls erupted to celebrate a much-needed win.

It will get even better when the squad gets injured transfer Victoria Fuentes into the mix. The P-SJ-A ex is expected to provide solid middle blocker minutes with her lanky 5-10 frame, in the spot previously occupied by graduate Natalie Martinez.

“We have a lot of work to do still, but our new girls are coming around,” Ponce said in the happy postgame din.

Wiping sweat off her weary brow, the program workhorse smiled. It was a smile of vindication, from a kid who has become a real team leader when the Lady Bobcats needed it most.