For perhaps the first time in their run of three consecutive state championships, opponents of the Pope John Paul II Jaguars believe they have a legitimate shot against them.

The “pregame invincibility” that one of the state’s top volleyball programs had the past several seasons may have dimmed.

When you talk to the members of the 2017 squad, they believe it will actually benefit them as they begin their drive for state championship number four beginning 9 a.m. Thursday as top-seeded Pope John Paul takes on No. 8 Academy of the Sacred Heart in Division IV quarterfinal action.

“It has helped increase team unity,” senior Camille Dedeaux said of a pair of losses late in the regular season. “It allowed us as a team to really get back on track and focus on our common goal of winning a state championship. Maybe we lost sight of that goal at some points, but the lack of success late in the season was perhaps the recharge and motivation that we needed.”

A program not used to losing games, particularly to in-state opponents, the Jaguars dropped a four-game match to rival  Hannan on Oct. 18 and a five-game match to undefeated Teurlings Catholic.

“When you are on top for as long as we have been, you can develop some complacency,” Dedeaux said. “That’s why I think you could almost say we needed those two losses, because it was a great reality check and wake-up call for us, in a good way. We can’t wait to get started on Thursday.”

Freshmen setter Kendall Battistella echoed Dedeaux’s sentiments, saying the anticipation for the first match Pope John Paul II has in the Pontchartrain Center is very high.

“We are actually embracing the early start (at 9 a.m.),” she said. “It can do nothing but motivate you. I mean you are walking on a clean court and get to set the pace and make your mark to a packed house. The energy in the gym is definitely going to be high.”

Having only lost a combined three games to in-state opponents the last two seasons, senior Sydney Neyland said she and the rest of her teammates are excited for the opportunity to end the season with yet another state championship for the Jaguars.

“The message with our struggles at the end of the season to us has been that we are not invincible,” she said. “But the positive that has come out of that since is that the energy level has increased dramatically in practice and in our workouts. To be honest with you, I think the game itself just means more to us now. We just needed a friendly reminder.”

Follow David Folse II on Twitter, @davidfolse.