Maria Gonzalez is understandably excited to be back on the bench this season for a wide range of reasons.

The Woodlawn High volleyball coach missed — in both senses of the word — some time with her team last year as she underwent chemotherapy for her battle with ovarian cancer.

But she returned this fall enthusiastic not only for reunion and sense of normalcy with her players, but for the opportunity she and her staff see for a potentially special Lady Panthers group this season.

“I’m so happy to be back,” she said. “It keeps me distracted from thinking about feeling bad or thinking about going to chemo… And they have so much potential, man. They can be so good. And like I told them today, ‘I’m giving y’all everything I’ve got, so y’all better play hard for me.’ I want to be here for them this season. And some days I may be feeling bad, but I’m making it through the season.”

Gonzalez takes the reins of the program back from her father, Nelson Malpica, the Lady Panthers’ longtime head coach who worked with assistant Luis Mendoza to lead the squad through 2021.

And the roster returns a wealth of bodies, talent and experience, as well as some key new faces expected to make immediate impacts.

“We only had one senior last year, so these girls have played varsity and have experience from last year,” Malpica said. “And we have a lot of kids this season. We have a bench now. Before, we’ve had years where we started with only seven or eight girls, and this year we have 32 locked in. And this is basically the first time that we’ve had a lot of people that play club. In the past, we’ve had one or two people, but we’ve got a lot of the girls this year that play club. So that’ll help us.”

Seniors Marie Sierra, Elysa Pitts and Reagan McDowell headline the key group of returners.

McDowell earned District 4-II MVP honors as a junior, and the coaches expect big strides and potential breakout performances from Sierra and Pitts this fall after strong summer showings.

“Then we have our two juniors that have been playing since they were freshmen, Kelis (Conley) and Brander (Graham),” Gonzalez said, continuing to list players to watch. “And then we got a transfer in, senior Karma (Kasubaski) from South Carolina, that last week was her first time playing. And she’s going to help us tremendously once she gets the groove knowing our team. That’s someone we weren’t expecting that I think’s going to help us out a lot.”

The coaches listed a pair of liberos, sophomore Krystel Amo and freshman Katelyn Reed, among the additional leaders of a talented underclassman group.

“(Amo) played last year, played club and came back, and, boy, she is a ball of fire,” the coach said. “And then we’ve got Katelyn Reed, who was student of the year from Woodlawn Middle, and she’s come in, like wow, playing varsity and stepping in pretty well and smart of course.

“We had a very good group of freshmen last year, and we have a bench. We haven’t had a bench in a long time, so we’ve got a lot of options. So, for me, I think we’re gonna surprise a lot of people. We are in a new district this year, a tougher district than we were in the past. But I think we’re gonna surprise a lot of people.”

Woodlawn’s increased attendance in recent years has returned the volleyball program to Division I, the LHSAA’s highest classification level for the sport.

And the Lady Panthers now have a District 4-I slate that includes St. Joseph’s Academy, Zachary, Central, Scotlandville and Baton Rouge High.

Early-season challenges such as Monday’s season opener against Parkview Baptist will test — and hopefully prepare — the team for what lies ahead.

The coaches praised their girls’ performance this summer and overall chemistry, but now want to see those dynamics come together in action on the court with consistency and against top competition.

And their messages to that end are clear.

“Fulfill your potential,” Mendoza said. “They haven’t fulfilled that. They’re not even close. We told them to hustle and show desire.”

Added Gonzalez: “I think in the jamboree, we got out-hustled… And that’s when I was telling them don’t give up. We were winning and then got down, and they stayed down instead of fighting through it. So we talked a lot about that. Be consistent. If you’re consistent, we’ll be fine.”