New era for Westlake volleyball: Laracuente replaces a legend


It took senior setter Rory Williams less than a week to realize Westlake volleyball will be different without Al Bennett in the gym.

The mission, though, remains the same.

After 12 years, Marci Laracuente left a comfortable coaching job at Flower Mound to take over for a legend. She understands the legacy of excellence she inherits. Bennett, 63, had won four state championships and compiled a 1,011-230 record when he retired in December after 30 seasons.

A new era will begin when the Chaparrals open the season Tuesday night at McCallum.

Laracuente, 36, has hit the floor running. Last week more than 70 players tried out to be part of Westlake’s volleyball program. She also met with junior varsity, freshman and middle school coaches to establish a coordinated network.

Her most important meeting, though, was a question-and-answer session with her players in the campus arena this spring.

“I let them know I understand the Westlake culture and the expectations here,” Laracuente said. “I told them I was excited to be part of the volleyball program and was ready to work with them.

“The goal always is to go to state or far into the playoffs. We’re going to focus on culture and work ethic and accountability because I believe we have the athletes here.”

Williams and junior setter Rylee Baptiste vividly remember their initial meeting with the new coach.

“She and Bennett have different vibes,” Williams said. “I see her as team-oriented, upbeat and positive.”

Laracuente “is very hands-on during drills,” Baptiste added. “She gives us feedback right away.”

Williams and Baptiste said they had an emotional attachment to Bennett because they had known him since elementary school. They were regulars at Chaparrals matches because Bennett coached their older sisters.

Both said they remain friends with their former coach. Before practice began last week, Bennett texted the players to wish them well this season. Three years after having a stroke, he said he’s feeling “much better” and is eager to watch the season from afar.

Westlake, 28-17 last season, has enough experienced players to make 2018 special, players said. Among the top returning Chaps are junior middle blocker Lexi Zurovec and senior outside hitter Jada Birkel, a Memphis pledge.

Laracuente and her husband of four years, Mario Andre, a freelance filmmaker, moved to Austin in April. That has given her time to adjust to the new job.

Among the people who have reached out to her is Bennett. He and Laracuente had known each other through volleyball circles over the years, and she now considers him a mentor.

“After I got the job, he’s been nothing but supportive,” Laracuente said. “He’s been adamant, though, about giving me space so I can take over the program.”

Bennett said he will not attend practice because he doesn’t want to give the players “mixed messages” about who’s in charge. Although he was not part of the committee that hired Laracuente, he said she was on his radar when he offered suggestions about his replacement.

It was time to step away from the program, he said, and he will not interfere with the team unless the new coach seeks advice.

“She going to be under a big enough microscope without me being there,” Bennett said.



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