Indiana Wesleyan wins NAIA national volleyball championship
December 6, 2023
October 24, 2023
• Well, that was fast.
In Tennessee, Oklahoma and Mississippi, the 2023 fall season is officially over.
The state championships in those states includes romps, nail biters, first-time winners, multi-year champions and stupendous individual performances.
I just love this time of year! Which teams/which players shine brightest when the spotlight is on them?
• Let’s start in Tennessee, where five champions were crowned.
Cleveland, powered by 27 kills from 6-3 junior OH Lauren Hurst, won its second straight AAA title in a sweep over Nolensville. Kinslee McGowan added 37 assists and five kills to the cause for the Raiders, who swept through the state tournament without dropping a set for the second straight year.
Signal Mountain captured the AA crown, downing defending champion Creek Wood in the winner’s bracket final and young Valor College Prep in the overall final. The four-set win, sparked by MVP Emily Redman’s 19 kills, 19 digs, four aces and three blocks, was the second in program history for the Eagles. Carlee Lowry recorded a triple-double (12 kills, 15 assists, 12 digs) for the victors. Anarela Mejias-Ayala had 18 kills, nine digs and three aces in the loss for Valor.
Sale Creek took 1A, downing Loretto to capture the first state title for the school in any sport. The Panthers, who finished 50-2, got a season-high 26 kills from Ava Higgins and 51 assists from Karma Higgins in the four-set win.
Briarcrest Christian won Div. II-AA in straight sets. The Saints defeated St. Agnes for the 11th title in program history and fifth since 2018. Breya Dawson, a freshman, was named championship game MVP after recording 11 kills and two blocks. The two teams split matches in the regular season and did so again at state. St. Agnes swept Briarcrest on Wednesday in the winners bracket final, but lost one day later in the ultimate match of the modified double-elimination event.
Providence Christian Academy won its first state title, defeating St. George’s in four sets in Div. II-A. Sophomore Sadie Kroeger led the way with 30 kills, six digs and two aces, while senior McKenna Shotwell added 21 kills and 10 digs and Lillie Meinhart distributed 52 assists.
• The story of the tournament was, once again, Briarcrest Christian. Recall that last year, the Saints won the state title with their head coach, Carrie Yerty, unable to attend for health reasons. The former collegiate head coach at Memphis and Wyoming, who had led Briarcrest to four titles in her five years, passed away three months later, on Jan. 24 of this year, after a long bout with colon cancer.
“When Carrie took the helm, she took it to another level,” said Associate Head Coach April Jauregui last October. “She created a dynasty. Carrie has been an incredible leader and mentor for the coaching staff and players. She sets a high standard of achievement, and the program has thrived under her direction.”
Jauregui assumed the head coach’s position for this season, but she was sure to remind everyone that the Saints were playing for Yerty, her close friend and mentor. The team donned “Play for Carrie” T-shirts to warm up before matches all season long.
Here’s what Jauregui, herself a former collegiate head coach, had to say about the match:
“Going into this season I knew we had the talent in the gym to compete for another State Championship, but we lacked experience, which can only come from being in big games and situations. We also needed to work to continue the winning culture of Briarcrest Volleyball.
“It is hard to follow Carrie Yerty. I did it before at the University of Memphis. Albeit, under much different circumstances this time around. I took over coaching the program before the start of last season (2022), when Carrie was too sick to come anymore. That was rocky, but at the end we found a way to play through the grief, come together, and fight for her. We graduated almost our entire starting line-up, one that included four college level players.
“So this was a re-load year. This season, we wore shirts that said ‘Play for Carrie,’ but it was really more about honoring her legacy and what she has built here at Briarcrest. It was not an easy road; in fact, about a month ago, we had a string of losses and poor performances. I wasn’t sure how it would all pan out. But, credit to my coaching staff, we got these girls to buy in and compete.
“They were so locked in at the end of the season. They were able to handle setbacks better. They had built that resiliency. The fight was there. That is the most rewarding as a coach because that is what Carrie was all about. She was a fighter and, ultimately, that’s what it means to play for her. To give everything you’ve got until the last whistle. For Carrie, that meant fighting cancer. For these girls on this team, it meant learning what it takes to overcome an obstacle. For us as coaches, we know it’s about preparing them for the hardships of life. We can’t control what happens to us; we can only control how we respond. We will let God take care of the rest.
“This win means a lot to me and our coaching staff. I miss Carrie more than I can put into words. When I took over at Memphis at the young age of 28, I stupidly tried to do things my way. This go around, I knew better. I followed an amazing coach. She was one of my best friends, my mentor, my boss, and most importantly my sister in Christ. We are forever bound by that. I am still me, and I have my own style of coaching, but I focus on trying to do things as I believe she would do them. I am intentional about keeping the traditions of Briarcrest volleyball alive and honoring her the best I can. Once a Saint, always a Saint.”
• Last week in Oklahoma, Christian Heritage Academy and Community Christian won the 3A and 4A state titles.
This week, the 5A and 6A titles were determined, with Bishop McGuinness winning in 5A and Jenks taking 6A.
Top-seeded McGuinness (31-4) defeated Booker T. Washington in four sets behind setter Claire Kierl and libero Taylor Vann.
Jenks swept defending champion Edmond Memorial in 6A, avenging last year’s championship match defeat. The Trojans, with 10 seniors on the roster, won their sixth title in program history. Kynli Kirendoll had the match point kill for Jenks and libero Caroline Wood led a determined defensive effort.
• The title for McGuiness was its first in 20 years, as the Irish had been in the misfortune of being in the same classification as Bishop Kelley (19 state title all-time) and Cascia Hall (8) most years. The last time McGuinness won state, head coach Kelli Miller was an outside hitter and assistant Megan Janda was a libero for the Irish..
“We are blessed to be able to coach McGuinness as we just fought for the second, 20 years later,” Miller said. “It is very full circle for us to be able to coach these girls that we love, the sport we love, for the school we love.”
Miller said that having nine seniors helped the team be prepared for a fight in every match.
“We had what we called the ‘5 Set Mentality,’ which meant that we went into each game expecting that the opponent wanted it as much as we did and we were prepared to fight until the end, and go 5 with them,” Miller explained. “Our seniors helped create an environment that allowed our two freshman starters to feel welcome and accepted so that they, too, could perform at their best. The skill has always been there, but the mental toughness was unparalleled this weekend.”
• In Mississippi this past week, a total of 10 titles were conferred. If that seems like a lot, well, it’s because it is.
Let’s turn first to the MAIS, which used to known as the “Mississippi Association of Independent Schools” but is now the MidSouth Association of Independent Schools.
Three Mississippi schools took home the titles.
Powerhouse Jackson Academy won its fifth straight title, outlasting Madison-Ridgeland Academy in five sets in the closest Div. I final in the 12-year history of the event.
Jackson Academy trailed 11-10 in the final set before a 4-0 run gave the Raiders breathing room in the 15-12 win.
Senior libero Kaylee Lowther had 34 digs to lead the way for the Raiders (35-13). Senior OH Ava Antonaros added 18 kills, 17 digs and three aces and freshman OH Carson Caraway contributed 19 kills, including the clincher, plus 19 digs and three blocks.
MRA finished the season 41-7, a school record for wins, and had a 30-match winning streak during the season. MRA graduates only one senior and returns 6-5 sophomore middle Alyssa Dampier, daughter of former NBA player Erick Dampier.
Lamar (19-13) won its second consecutive title in Div. II, downing Simpson Academy in four sets. The Raiders got 12 kills apiece from Emma Hale and Caroline Fruge in the win. Hale added nine digs and four aces, while Fruge also had 16 digs. Freshman setter Rylee Schimelpfening contributed 35 assists.
Coach Courtney Schimelpfening said that her undersized team might not have intimidated but they fought their tails off.
“I wouldn’t say we were underdogs; we’re just smaller dogs,” she told a local reporter. I love that!
Regents of Oxford won its third straight title in Div. III by dominating Winston Academy. The Lions finished the season with a 17-16 record.
Senior Bailey Ray had 12 kills and eight aces to lead the way for Regents. Lauren Niemeyer added 12 kills and 10 digs and freshman setter Maddie Niemeyer hoisted 30 assists in the 3-0 win.
• The Mississippi High School Athletic Association not only determined champions in its SEVEN classifications (for 2.9 million folks; Illinois has 12.5 million people and four classifications), it also announced, for the first time, seven Miss Volleyball Awards, as follows:
1A – Jolee Young, Sr. OH, Hickory Flat
2A – Macie Phifer, Sr. OH, Ingomar
3A – Kerstin Moody, Sr. OH, Belmont
4A – Emma McKee, Sr. libero, Caledonia
5A – Harmony Jackson, Sr. OH, Lafayette
6A – Sofia Gonzalez, Soph. OH, Lake Cormorant
7A – Emily Davis, Sr. OH, Brandon
Three of the seven, Phifer, Jackson and Gonzalez, played on teams that won state titles.
• Lewisburg downed favored Brandon in a reverse sweep to win the state’s first 7A volleyball title. The Patriots dropped the first two sets before winning the last three, including by a 15-13 score in the fifth set. Seniors Ella Grace Holloway and Jayda Bradley teamed for 42 kills and 36 digs and junior setter Claire Smith had 50 assists and 11 digs in the win. Brandon, which was trying to repeat as state champions, got 19 kills from senior Emma Levingston in the loss.
Lake Cormorant, last year’s 5A champion, swept by Hancock for the 6A title. Gonzalez led the way with 22 kills, 10 digs and two blocks.
Jackson was named MVP for Lafayette County, which won the 5A title in a sweep over East Central.
Newton County shrugged off a Northeast Lauderdale team that had handed the Cougars two of their four losses on the season in a semifinal sweep then did the same to Purvis in the 4A championship match.
Setter Ava Davis and MB Myah Favre sparked Our Lady Academy to another state title in a sweep over Alcorn Central in 3A. The Crescents have now won 16 state titles in program history.
Phifer starred and slammed home the final kill as Ingomar repeated as champions in 2A.
Pine Grove swept Noxapater to capture its first state title in 1A. Freshman setter Myles Switcher was named match MVP. Pine Grove also got strong play from seniors Selah Jumper and Lexi Beard.
• Last week, we released our ION list, which is our state-by-state Player of the Year Watch list. Here are some players, nominated by folks whose opinion we trust, who also were given consideration. This week, we will do the first 25 states plus D.C. We’ll finish the “also-considered” list next week:
• This week, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Maine and Utah’s smaller classes will conduct their state championships.
In Arkansas, Fayetteville is vying for another 6A title with practically a new team.
In Idaho, defending champion Skyview should be favored in 4A despite being the third seed. The Hawks have dropped just one set to in-state competition this season.
In Kansas, Blue Valley North is the top seed in 6A and Andover Central (38-1) has top honors in 5A despite the presence of powerhouse privates St. James Academy and Saint Thomas Aquinas.
The Class A bracket in Maine is down to four in what should be a dogfight between Gorham, Deering, Scarborough and Biddeford.
Undefeated Paraowan, led by junior Paige Felder, will be looking to repeat in Utah’s 2A.
• To finish, this week I asked varsity head coaches on my bulk email list – coaches may join the list at this link — https://volleyballmag.com/high-school-coach-sign-up/ — to share those players or coaches doing unique or unusual things outside of volleyball.
I received too many good ones to write about them all this week, so here’s one to whet your appetite for next week:
Mandarin (FL) senior OH Madison Swaim specializes in abstract art and has won 14 North Florida Scholastic Art Awards over the past two years, five gold, four silver and five honorable mention. Swaim creates unique and captivating pieces with a vision that is truly their own.
Swaim has used her art and creativity to support her volleyball passion by selling her original paintings, prints, and t-shirt designs at local venues and online to fund her European volleyball trips over the last few years with “Bring it USA.” She has earned a scholarship from Savannah College of Art and Design and will play intramural volleyball when she enrolls for the fall quarter in 2024.
Until next time …