Tawa’s national fall HS volleyball roundup concludes with Texas and a test for you

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Fall HS volleyball 2/5/2021-Liberty Christian volleyball
Liberty Christian celebrates getting the championship trophy
(Editor’s note: This wraps up John Tawa’s incredibly comprehensive look at all 50 states and how their respective high school volleyball seasons came out this past fall. It concludes with Texas.
And at the end take John’s test!).

A little less than one month ago, I embarked on a project to recap girls high school volleyball across the 50 states and Washington D.C. for VolleyballMag.com. Now — with us deciding to hold Texas for last — it’s become six articles. More than 50,000 words later, I am done. Mercifully.

Soon, I will transition to covering the club scene. You can expect the same comprehensive, high-quality journalism from me that I’ve given you over the past four weeks. If you have enjoyed it, I want to encourage you (I’m not pleading just yet) to become a Sustaining Member of VolleyballMag.com. You know that big blue box you see whenever you come to the site? The one with the red “X” in the upper right corner that you click in order to get to the free articles? I encourage you to contribute to the cause of quality journalism. You can give as little as $10 for a year or as much as $120. 

Give what you can but please give. It’s the ONLY way the folks who run the site will be able to pay for my continued contributions. Here’s the link: https://volleyballmag.com/sustaining-membership/

Now, I mentioned above that I am done with my work on high school volleyball recaps.

You, however, are not.

Remember that test I promised in the first article? It’s just FIVE questions long and you will find it at the very bottom. It shouldn’t take too long if you’ve been reading carefully. I will choose two winners at random on Valentine’s Day and they will get a whole bunch of goodies! Good luck! 

TEXAS
Nickname: The Lone Star State
Capital city: Austin
Population: 29.4 million
Year of statehood: 1845

Lovejoy head coach Ryan Mitchell knew that he had a championship team.

Not just a state championship team.

Having presided over six state championship teams during two stints at the school, he recognized what it took to win a crown in the University Interscholastic League’s 5A division. But he knew this team was more than that. With 10 college-bound players on his elite-level roster, the senior-laden Leopards were a team that almost certainly would be in the hunt for a mythical national title in any normal year.

COVID-19 almost changed all of that …

There was a time, a little over 10 years ago, when I wouldn’t have considered ANY team from Texas for a national championship. Not because the elite teams from the state didn’t abound with talent, but because being a national champion, in my view, required playing a national schedule or defeating a team or teams that played a national schedule. Texas’ early August start and demanding district schedule often precluded Lone Star State teams from matching up with elite teams from elsewhere.

As Texas teams started dominating the club scene, my view on that evolved somewhat. It also helped that some Texas teams, like 2019 Class 6A champion Byron Nelson, took on the burden of travel. Both of those things made thinking about Texas’ best as national championship worthy much more palatable.

Viewed against that backdrop, Lovejoy certainly was on the short list of national championship contenders heading into the season. The 2019 defending 5A champions boasted one of the nation’s elite junior setters in Averi Carlson, an elite national defender in senior Callie Kemohah and a physical, do-it-all senior outside hitter in Cecily Bramschreiber, who was equally skilled as an attacker or back row defender. The team was so balanced and so deep that, on April 29, I retreated from my prediction that 6A Klein would top Texas and made Lovejoy my pre-season favorite, with Prosper, Flower Mound, Klein and Guyer next, in order, followed by Fulshear and Episcopal of Bellaire.

COVID nixed all of those amazing annual statewide August tournaments that separate the Texas wheat from the chaff, but Mitchell clearly was thinking about how to build a schedule that nevertheless would allow Lovejoy to stay in the national championship discussion. He scheduled early matches with Prosper and Guyer, both to find out how good his team actually was and also to prove a point: Lovejoy wasn’t afraid of anybody.

On Tuesday, September 15, Lovejoy was on its way to open the season on the road versus Prosper when the school administration made the team turn back. Someone had tested positive for COVID.

“We ended up having four players and three coaches, including myself, test positive,” Mitchell said. “We shut down the program for two weeks.”

After waiting since March to get back on the court, Lovejoy had to wait two more weeks to start its season. The match against Prosper? Gone. The match against Guyer? Also gone. Even as the Leopards got back on the court and started destroying opponent after opponent, Mitchell couldn’t help but wonder whether COVID had cost his team a chance at that national title.

“I actually worried about that,” he said.

Mitchell was able to get eventual 4A champion Decatur and powerful 6A foe Arlington Martin on the schedule on Saturdays (both sweeps), to augment district play. Then Lovejoy “warmed up” for the playoffs against a loaded Guyer team and won, 25-20, 25-20, 25-16.

Beating those three powerhouses helped put Lovejoy back in the national championship picture. The Leopards, with only one set loss on their ledger before starting the playoffs, stormed to the 5A championship match with five dominating wins. Their only blemish was a 27-25 set two setback to Reedy in the second round. 

Mitchell knew that Lovejoy’s finals opponent, Fulshear, was a step up in competition. The Chargers boasted three big-time attackers in Alexis Dacosta (Baylor), Ellie Echter (LSU) and Brielle Warren (Purdue). And, after winning the 2019 4A title, Fulshear had transitioned well to 5A in 2020, going undefeated in its classification. 

Lovejoy won, 25-14, 25-17, 25-22, to complete its undefeated season at 26-0. The Leopards are the only team in Dallas-area history to go through a season undefeated.

Lovejoy won by holding Fulshear’s high volume trio well under per set averages, especially over the first two sets, where they recorded a total of just 13 kills. The Leopards were active at the net, with 16 block assists, and relentless in the back row.

“Our defense and serve receive were suffocating,” Mitchell said. “It’s the best team that has ever come through here.  Ebony (Nwanebu; USC and Texas) came and hit at us one day and she said, ‘There are literally no holes … you guys just keep coming.’“

Lovejoy hoists the Texas title trophy

Bramschreiber, the 5A MVP and TGCA Female Athlete of the Year, led Lovejoy in the championship match with 12 kills, 12 digs and three blocks. Ellie Jonke added 10 kills, Carlson had 29 assists and the back row duo of Kemohah and Grace McLaughlin teamed for 33 digs.

“I think the way we beat Fulshear in the finals, with them being loaded with D1 talent, was a big statement for us,” Mitchell said. “I don’t claim to know every high school team out there and I am sure there are a few with better top-end talent, but I can’t imagine anyone with the depth of talent and the ball control talent that we had.”

On January 5, 2021, Mike Miazga, writing for VolleyballMag.com, recognized Lovejoy’s season by naming the Leopards the VBM Fall National High School Team of the Year.

“Coming together and finishing an undefeated campaign is a special thing,” Mitchell said. “This group was made up of incredible makeup of athletes and young women. I think I will remember their ability to overcome obstacles to complete a team goal.”

When Ally Batenhorst was a freshman back in 2017, the 6-4 outside hitter led Seven Lakes to its first-ever Class 6A state tournament appearance and first-ever championship match appearance. The PrepVolleyball.com national freshman of the year, playing along her sister, senior Dani Batenhorst, had 18 kills but the Spartans were no match for Hebron and lost in three sets.

The next two years, while Batenhorst’s all-around game was getting better and better, Seven Lakes kind of fell off the contenders’ map. The Spartans went 27-11 in 2018 and was ousted in the third round of the playoffs. Last year, head coach Amy Cataline’s team managed a 26-18 record, which included a second-round playoff defeat.

Seven Lakes after winning the 6A title in Texas

How then to explain Seven Lakes going 25-1 and defeating crosstown rival Klein in four sets for its first 6A state title?

Senior experience, star power and burgeoning confidence perhaps.

“I will remember most the team’s resilience and heart throughout a challenging season,” Cataline said. “They never folded; they persevered, played inspired and pulled together to make their goal a reality.”

Klein, which entered the state final undefeated, won the first set at deuce and led by as many as six points in the second set before Seven Lakes engineered a huge comeback to knot the match at a set apiece.

“After that, it was back and forth and close for the next two sets, but our momentum and confidence never wavered,” Cataline said. “The points lost didn’t faze the girls and they answered back every time. The excitement after each point was on full display. The girls were living in the moment — focused, resilient, joyful and determined, both on and off the court. It was a sight to see.

“After winning match point, the dog pile was just as we envisioned, complete with tears, hugs and big smiles. We were overwhelmed with joy.  It was a surreal, satisfying and exhilarating feeling for all.  What made it so special was that it wasn’t done alone — it took all of us, together, a true team effort!”

Batenhorst, who set a 6A state tournament record with 35 kills in a five-set semifinal win over San Antonio Reagan, hammered home 30 kills for the victors in the championship match. The consensus MVP also posted 19 digs.

Batenhorst was not alone in stuffing the stat sheet. Her sister, junior setter Casey Batenhorst, delivered 52 assists and 12 digs. Mayo Olibale had 14 kills and three blocks. Kailey Bickel contributed 20 digs and Peyton Sykes produced five aces.

“Once playoffs started, the desire to win gold was talked about frequently,” Cataline explained.  “They weren’t just content with getting to State; they wanted to win in all and get a gold medal.  They saw the road to state paved by the 2017 team, which won silver, and they were eager to finish what they started and take it all.”

Four players led Klein’s quest for a first state title just as they had all season long in the Bobcats’ historic year. Ariana Brown had 12 kills and 11 digs. Devan Taylor had 10 digs. Kierstyn McFall produced nine kills and three blocks. And Annie Antar finished with 22 assists, nine kills and 11 digs. Klein had not been to the state tournament since 2002.

Decatur captured the Class 4A title for the second time in three years by sweeping a Wimberley team that hadn’t made the championship match in a decade. The Eagles lost just one match all season long, using last year’s stunning third-round playoff loss to Krum as motivation.

Jentry Lamirand had 14 kills and four blocks for Decatur en route to being named match MVP. Trinity Vanzant had the final two kills to clinch the title for the Eagles.

Bushland won its first title since 2016 by sweeping Goliad in Class 3A. Kinley Rudder had the final kill for the Falcons, who lost in the semifinals a year ago. Bushland has been to the state tournament four times over the past six years.

Cadence Hoyle and Jenna McDougald combined for 45 kills as Iola (30-1) upended defending champion Crawford in four sets for the Class 2A title. The Bulldogs avenged a 2017 state final sweep at the hands of the Pirates, the last of 11 previous state tournament appearances for the champs. Iola last won state in 2016.

Lexi Moody led Crawford with 36 assists. Katie Warden had 18 kills.

One year ago, Neches defeated Blum in the semifinals on its way to the Class 1A title. In 2020, the teams met in the final but the result was the same. Behind a strong match from Lexi Rogers (15 kills; 10 digs), Neches swept to the win, the third title in a row for the small school southeast of Dallas.

Emma Jones had nine kills and Ruby Rumohr dished out 20 assists for Blum, which was in the championship match for the second time in school history. 

The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (“TAPPS”) was founded in 1978, almost 70 years after the public school UIL. Like the UIL, TAPPS conducts six volleyball championships.

At Liberty Christian in Argyle, the team’s seven seniors had been talking about “getting a ring” since they were freshmen. While the team was good the past few years, those seniors, most of whom had been at Liberty since they were in middle school, were a long way away from backing up that boast. But they never lost hope; they never stopped believing that they would eventually bring a state title back to Liberty for the first time since 2006.

In 2020, that prediction finally came true. The Warriors rallied from a two sets to one deficit to defeat defending champion St. Agnes Academy in the 6A final. Tied at 13-13 in the fifth set, Madison Morrow, an SFA beach commit, delivered a kill to give Liberty Christian the only match point it would need. When a subsequent St. Agnes attack flew long, the dogpile began.

“We have been the underdog in volleyball for so many years that I believe that we took many teams by surprise,” sixth-year head coach Kim Grizzle said.

The Warriors finished the season 31-1. After coasting through the regular season, with one loss and one other match going the distance, Liberty Christian was pushed to five sets in three of its four playoff matches.

“The fight that this team has will be in my memory forever,” Grizzle said.

Against a taller, playoff-steeled St. Agnes team in the final, Grizzle’s plan was to set the ball off the net so that her players could attack to areas of the court that the Tigers had trouble defending.

“The kids have to know that you have a plan, know what to do and believe in you,” Grizzle explained.

The plan worked! Morrow finished with 19 kills to go along with 16 digs, four blocks and two aces. Jadyn Fife had 10 kills and provided a huge block in the middle. Reagan Fifer, Liberty Christian’s 6-2 lefty setter, had her best match of the year with 37 assists, 10 digs and five kills. Libero Parker Ford kept the Warriors in system with terrific passing all match long. And the team got a HUGE spark when senior Ella Grace Barr, who missed most of the District season with a labrum tear, came off the bench and dominated, with nine kills while hitting .438.

“This team did a great job of adjusting to whatever situation we faced,” Grizzle said. “I was blessed and honored to coach such an amazing group of young women.”

Sophie Agee, Toyosi Onabanjo, Brooke Middleton and Kendall Harris were standouts in the loss for St. Agnes, which holds the TAPPS record for most state tournament appearances (18) and most state titles (8).

St. Joseph outlasted Prince of Peace, 29-27, in set one of the 5A final on its way to a sweep of the defending champions. The Flyers, who won their only other title in 2018, got 17 kills and 16 digs from Maiya Tillman and 24 assists and 10 digs from Madison Korinek in the win.

Prince of Peace graduated six senior starters off of its championship team and was thrilled to get to the championship match again, especially after starting the season with five consecutive losses. Autumn Perry led the way for the Eagles with 15 kills. Karli Henke and Kaci Luehrs each had 16 digs.

Northland won its first state title in program history. The Cougars overcame a set three loss to defeat Lake Country Christian in four sets for the 4A title.

Aimee Arash-Ajayi and Nicole Berkeland led the way in the victory for Northland. Hailee Howell, Olivia Oloffson and Madison Pendley paced Lake Country, which moved up a classification this year. The Eagles were playing for a state title for the first time since 1992.

New Braunfels Christian swept Midland Classical Academy in 3A. It was a rematch of the 2018 title tilt, which MCA won in a five-set thriller. New Braunfels Christian also played for the title last fall, but lost to Round Rock Christian.

Hailey Hamlett, a TCU recruit, led the victorious Wildcats with 12 kills and 15 digs. Camdyn Doucet, a Stanford beach volleyball recruit, added nine kills, 10 digs and five blocks.

Marin Casey had 14 kills and eight digs in the loss for the Knights. Kenna Bayley had a team-high 16 digs.

Oville Christian won its third straight title, sweeping Bracken Christian in 2A. The Eagles have been to the state tournament just three times in school history but have emerged victorious each time.

Tessa Henry recorded 17 kills, eight digs and five blocks to lead the way. Audrey Nunes added 14 kills and eight digs, while Marlee Hopkins contributed 15 assists, 14 digs and five kills.

Bracken Christian was seeking its first state title since winning back-to-back in 2007 and 2008.

Christ Academy won state for the second time in three years, sweeping past Atonement for the 1A title.

Celine Yap, Sydney Rouillard and Morgan Brasher combined for 40 kills in the win. Kelsey Wilson had 43 assists and Haley Carnes contributed 19 digs.

Finally, it bears noting that the Southwest Preparatory Conference, where 15 private schools play volleyball in their own stand-alone conference, did not have an official season in 2020.

“We just played a shortened season this fall due to the pandemic,” Episcopal of Bellaire head coach Amanda Watts said. “Since most of the girls are involved in club, it didn’t make sense to try and have a season in the spring. It was also important to us not to interfere with that [spring] season since those athletes already lost a full season in 2020. I am very thankful for our administrative team for working so hard to ensure that we were able to play at all. We played a short but tough schedule and saw a lot of growth in the few matches we had. Although we did not get to defend our title in 2020, I look forward to the chance in 2021.”

***


THE TEST

1. How many states conducted girls volleyball state championships in 2020? (Hint: It’s more than 20 but less than 30)

2. Name the four Nebraska Cornhusker Class of 2021 recruits included in these articles.

3. Name the school that extended its national record consecutive title streak to 19 straight in 2020.

4. What is the nickname of the undefeated VolleyballMag.com Team of the Year? (Hint: it’s a cat, but not Lions)

5.  Only one player had more than 40 kills in a state final in 2020. Name her.

Please submit your answers by Feb. 14 by email to jtawa@volleyballmag.com. Put “Test Results” in the subject line and include your name, telephone number and address at the bottom.

Note: You do NOT have to become a VolleyballMag.com Sustaining Member to be eligible to win, but those entries might be easier to spot when I am choosing “at random.” Just sayin …

***

If you missed any of the previous five posts recapping the nation (or if you need to go back and read up to get the answers):

Part 1 — Alabama through Georgia
Part 2 — Hawai’i through Maryland
Part 3 — Massachusetts through New Jersey
Part 4 — New Mexico through South Carolina
Part 5 — South Dakota through Wyoming (minus Texas)

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Help keep free journalism free by becoming a VolleyballMag.com Sustaining Member: https://volleyballmag.com/sustaining-membership/

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