It is said that you never know how strong you are until you test yourself against the strongest.
But what happens if you are the strongest?
It’s a question that the Pope John Paul II volleyball team has to be asking its collective self.
The Jaguars, the defending Division IV state champion, lost two all-state players from last year’s team. But without fear, PJP coaches scheduled matches against some of the best teams in the state during predistrict.
The Jaguars have met all comers, including Cabrini, John Curtis, Mandeville, and Ursuline. They swept through the H.L. Bourgeois tournament with relative ease and have an 11-0 record. They also are the No. 2 ranked team in the state (all divisions) and among the top 100 teams in the U.S., according to at least one national website.
But given all the early accolades, the hardest part of the season to date — a trip to Baton Rouge to take on Division I power St. Joseph’s on Thursday.
Then Pope John Paul II will compete in the Catholic League Tournament, which runs Thursday through Saturday at Ursuline and Dominican in New Orleans. PJP doesn’t begin play in the tournament until Friday. More heavy hitters await there, and they’re sure to have their collective eyes set on the Jaguars.
PJP assistant coach Danny Tullis, who has been a driving force in the program’s recent success, said the team would have it no other way.
“I use the theory that you play matches that you can’t win unless you really work hard,” Tullis said. “In my first year at Pope, there were a few we couldn’t win. … Now, if we play hard, we’re going to have a good chance to win (all of them). The kids thrive off that. (When teams know they are going to win). They almost stop playing. They can’t stand it. They want competition.”
They are sure to get it from St. Joseph’s and again at the Catholic League Tournament, the latter in which they will play matches Friday or Saturday against Notre Dame, E.D. White, Sacred Heart, Dominican and St. Thomas More.
St. Thomas More is the top-ranked team in all Louisiana classes, according to national websites. Pope John Paul II and STM will find out at noon Saturday who is better on the court.
“No one expects anything,” said sophomore libero Tyler Sanderson, who was a reserve on last year’s championship team. “You’re not entitled to anything. You work hard, you win. We don’t focus on losing. Hopefully we’re undefeated after the tournament. That’s what everyone wants. But we’re focusing on what we’re doing now. We just want to win when it comes to the playoffs, and these games are getting us ready.”
Of the 16 players on the PJP roster, only four are juniors or seniors. The lone senior, setter Bailee Maillet said keeping things in perspective is important.
“We just have to focus on practice and getting better,” she said. “In the (H.L. Bourgeois) tournament, we didn’t do as well on our serving as we would have liked. So we’re working on that. … Losing two of our biggest players from last year that was hard.
“But we’re trying to blend those younger players with the more experienced ones we have.”
The cupboard is far from bare at PJP. All-State hitter Marlena Cutura leads the way, and she is set up by all-state setter Milayne Danna. A host of younger athletes, led by eighth-grader Ansley Tullis, has provided the support the team needs to flourish.
But again, it’s about focus for this squad.
“All the articles and what everyone is saying about is hard not to see or hear,” said sophomore hitter Sydney Neyland. But coach Danny and (head coach) Rachel Battistella, they keep us in focus. It’s not about how many kills you have or how many stats you have. You play for the team.”
Like Danny Tullis said, the Jaguars will find out how strong they are by the end of the week. Sixteen of the state’s finest teams will be in attendance.
“There’s talent there from top to bottom,” he said. “It’s a test, sure. But it’s a test that we’re looking forward to.”