The COVID-19 pandemic paid the Lovejoy girls volleyball team a visit early in the season.
The Leopards from Lucas, Texas, were forced into an early season temporary quarantine that stopped play/gathering for a stretch. But instead of fretting about the situation, Lovejoy did a little out-of-the-box team bonding.
Coach Ryan Mitchell selected some motivational reading — “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon — and the Leopards ended up doing a virtual book club of sorts via Zoom, something that makes outside hitter-libero Cecily Bramschreiber laugh — in a good way.
“We did do a book club,” she said, chuckling. “I don’t think a lot of teams do that. I think it helped us. It put some things in perspective for us. Coach Ryan picked a good book that kind of relates to us. It put us in a good position to see where we are at compared to other teams, what our situation was and how to go about it.”
(Spoiler alert: Bramscheiber, incidentally, is a first-team member of our 2020 Volleyball fall girls All-American team that will be posted here in the near future.)
Junior setter Averi Carlson agreed that the impromptu book club was a difference-maker.
“We got quarantined right before the preseason,” she said. “When I got the call that we were quarantined I was so sad, but coach Mitchell kept us involved with the Zoom meeting book study. The book talked about overcoming obstacles. It was about getting the bus rolling and getting motivated.”
And once the Leopards came back from quarantine that is exactly what happened — they kept their own energy bus rolling at high rates of speed.
Talent-laden Lovejoy went a perfect 26-0 during a COVID-19-shortened season on its way to a second straight Texas 5A state title and eighth in the brief history of the school. As a result, the Leopards are the 2020 VolleyballMag.com fall girls high school team of the year.
“What made this team so special is our love for each other,” Carlson said. “We are all so close to each other because a lot of us have played club together over the years. Winning it all last year was amazing. This year, it was more of a ‘no one is going to beat us’ kind of mindset. And with COVID and everything with that, it made it very special. Our goal was to win back-to-back titles. It’s the best feeling in the world — unexplainable. We got to play with our best friends and with such amazing coaches.”
Lovejoy certainly had motivation this fall. Beyond the sheer fact the team was able to play during the pandemic while chunks of the country saw fall high school sports seasons postponed, the Leopards had a state title to defend with 10 seniors at the helm. What’s more Mitchell’s roster featured 10 total college commits, nine going Division I, the other D-II.
“I knew it would be a special year because of all the seniors,” Mitchell said. “We have those 10 college commits and probably a couple more will happen in the next couple months. It’s special group of kids. A lot of them had played together for a long time through club. They won state as juniors, and then bringing everybody back for a senior run and going undefeated the way we did, it was a special year.
“Despite COVID, we tried to balance and navigate through all of it. I don’t know another group of kids who could do it as well as they did. They were so mature. Being senior-heavy made it easy on them.”
Mitchell was fully aware the Leopards would have the proverbial target on their backs thanks to their 2019 state title run that saw the squad finish 48-5.
“I was telling some coaches the other day that repeating is more of a relief,” he said. “The expectation is to do it again. We definitely did it. We didn’t talk about repeating. It was more just talk about playing our best brand of volleyball and getting better. It seems so coach-speakish, but they embodied it.
“Every game we tried to be 1-0. We never talked about being undefeated until the end when it happened. Why put a lot of pressure on a team that already has a lot on it to begin with? The fact they had played in big games and had those big experiences helped with pressure. They didn’t play like a team that was tight. It was the opposite.”
Mitchell was particularly impressed with how Lovejoy conducted itself in the state final match against Fulshear.
“We played almost flawless against a really good team,” he said. “It’s exciting to see the attributes the kids had in them come out.”
Bramschreiber added: “A lot of this came from experience. This was my third time to state in a row. Our senior leadership is really good. When it came to the state finals, it’s a big gym and being able to control nerves is a big factor. At the beginning of a match like that, nerves play a big part. Just being there before in that environment helped us calm that and use it in a positive way.”
Mitchell said Lovejoy got it done this season by shining on the defensive end.
“I have seen teams be more offensive than us,” Mitchell said. “From a defense and ball-control standpoint we were nearly in-system every ball. And then you give the kind of offense we have to a setter like Averi Carlson and it’s lethal. It was a matter of getting it to our hitters because we knew we were going to be in system. The kind of ball control we had was lethal.
“Our team defense and our serve-receive are what separated this group. We put a lot of pressure on other teams. We were always in-system, always passed well and never allowed the ball to drop. You would see teams play with us early and then they started making mistakes because they couldn’t put the ball down. We were a frustrating team to play.”
Lovejoy had four players register more than 100 digs with Kemohah (344) and Bramschreiber (235) leading the way and Mclaughlin adding 204. Lovejoy hit .340 as a team and only lost two sets season (Princeton 3-1 in the regular season and Reedy 3-1 in the playoffs). Bramschreiber, the UIL MVP for the second year in a row, led the team with 257 kills and nobody else topped 200, but when you are 78-2 playing best-of-3 sets, it’s probably best not to sink too much stock in black-and-white statistics. Translation here: Lovejoy dominated.
The other frustrating aspect for opponents of this north-Dallas-suburban school was the sheer amount of talent constantly staring at them from across the net. In addition to Carlson (Baylor, setter) and Bramschreiber (TCU), junior setter-RS Rosemary Archer is headed to Pepperdine, senior Brynn Egger is off to Central Oklahoma, senior defensive specialist Grace McLaughlin is going to set at Houston Baptist, senior Callie Kemohah (libero) is off to Oklahoma, senior Kylee Fitzsimmons will play beach at Arizona, senior middle Lexie Collins is headed to Wyoming, junior middle Grace Milliken will play at Boston College and junior DS Ava Camacho will eventually be off to Texas-San Antonio.
“We are super fortunate and lucky enough to have this set of girls on the team,” Bramschreiber said. “Not a lot of schools can say they have that many commits. It played a big part in us having an advantage. My favorite part of all this is the girls. They are all great player and most of us play club and are all big competitors. All of us have the same energy on the court and the same high expectations.”
Two other notables regarding Lovejoy: First, the team repeated in what is a known hotbed for girls volleyball.
“The competition down here is legit, especially in north Texas,” Mitchell said. “Most of these teams are chock full of Division I commits and big-time club players. It’s a hotbed, for sure. It makes it more competitive and it makes the level of the game that much higher. The team we played in the finals has girls going to Baylor, Texas A&M, and LSU. That’s pretty good high school volleyball. Any time you play the best, it makes the results that much sweeter.”
And Lovejoy finds itself in the midst of what would have to be termed a girls volleyball dynasty. The school has only been open 14 years and the girls volleyball program has been playing a varsity schedule for 13 seasons:
This was Lovejoy’s eighth state title.
“It’s a perfect storm,” said Mitchell, who just completed his 10th year at Lovejoy and is on his second stint with the program after a brief run in between at Southlake Carroll. Mitchell has been at the helm for seven of the eight state titles.
“We are in an area where the girls have the ability to play the sport year-round,” he continued. “Volleyball becomes a part of the community. This is a hard-working, entrepreneurial community with parents who are hard-working and hard-driving. The work ethic of the kids is great. We have great support from the administration and student body. There also has been coaching stability. It’s been myself and one other coach.
“You put it all together and it’s a winning recipe for consistent success year in and year out. We have built a cool community tradition. Little kids grow up wanting to be Lovejoy volleyball players. They see the older kids competing in the state tournament. Now, year after year, kids want to do that. It really is a dynasty in Texas volleyball. Back in 2006, nobody knew what Lovejoy was. It was kind of a funny name. Since then, we have built it into something synonymous with Texas volleyball.”