Opening night of the 2020 Alabama high school volleyball season did not go exactly as planned for Hoover, a school located in the Birmingham suburbs, and one of only 136 in the country that offers an advanced placement capstone diploma.
The Buccaneers played host to Mobile-based McGill-Toolen (a volleyball-rich school familiar to longtime readers of Volleyball magazine and VolleyballMag.com) on opening night, but dropped a five-set decision to its fellow state mover and shaker.
“Neither team played very well that night,” Hoover coach Chris Camper said. “I told our girls we did not lose the state championship that night and we weren’t going to win it either that night. And now that everybody thinks you are the best team to ever be put on the court, can we get back to work? They did.”
They sure did.
Ten days later in the semifinals of the Juanita Boddie tournament, Hoover squared off against that same McGill-Toolen squad, but this time things were a tad different — 25-19, 25-17 in favor of Hoover.
And that turned out to be a basic carbon-copy of the remainder of the Buccaneers season. Hoover finished 50-1, winning its final 50 matches of the season on its way to the program’s first-ever Alabama Class 7A state championship.
“I think it was timing more than anything else,” said Camper, who we’ve named the 2020 VolleyballMag.com fall girls high school coach of the year.
“It was one of those perfect storms where we had depth at every position and a combination of tremendous ball control with what was arguably the greatest front row in Alabama history. I don’t know if there has been this many tall, athletic and powerful girls on the same team in the state.”
“We had a 6-3 middle (Gabrielle Essix) who touches 10-8 and is going to Florida and another outside hitter (Rya McKinnon) committed to Louisville, who has started since she was 13 years old. You don’t get that in Alabama where you have two major Division I players on the same team. It doesn’t happen. We had a bunch of gym rats and some tall and physically powerful girls that happened to be on the same team.”
Yes, Hoover had plenty of talent.
After that opening-night defeat to McGill-Toolen, the Buccaneers swept 14 matches in a row before another team pocketed a set off them, that being highly touted Brentwood (Tennessee) in a tournament setting. In fact, only five times after the McGill-Toolen loss did a Hoover foe win a set — five teams each won a single set. Hoover went on to beat McGill-Toolen two more times during the season.
“This year it was mostly our hard work and dedication,” said Hoover junior and co-captain Rya McKinnon, the aforementioned University of Louisville commit and the MVP of the state tournament. “We worked so hard. We practiced hard and were dedicated every day. With COVID, we made a lot of sacrifices. We didn’t go to homecoming and football games to lessen possible exposure. Those types of sacrifices, dedication and hard work got us to the championship.”
Camper noted that while Hoover strolled into the gym with the likes of Essix and McKinnon and setter/co-captain Alyson Durbin (who will play right down the road at Samford), and a total of four girls over 6-feet tall, star power and size did not completely cash the paychecks this year. Defense did.
“Not a single player on that court had less than a 2.0 on serve-receive,” said Camper, who utilized the same starting lineup from the season-opening bell to state-championship match point. “I have never had that in my career. My job since I have been here has been trying to train people how to pass. Everybody sees us with four girls over 6-feet and they are intimidated. That’s not how we beat them. We beat them because the girl going to Louisville passed at a 2.3 and can run a swing offense.”
McKinnon finished the season with 599 kills and hit .422 from the left side, committing only 129 errors in 1,115 swings. Essix blasted 429 kills out of the middle and hit .492 (just 73 errors on 723 swings), while leading the team in total blocks with 93 (69 solo). Sydney Melton, the team’s other outside, had 253 kills and led the team in digs with 378. Senior Eva Guenster subbed in for the right side as a DS and was second in digs with 319, followed by McKinnon’s 284. Hoover had five girls with more than 200 digs. Durban set the team to a .349 hitting percentage.
Camper also lauded the efforts of seniors Melodie Jones (RS-MB) and Kayla Jemison (MB), along with libero Kendal Youngblood (256 digs) and sophomore libero Peyton David.
McKinnon, though, is quick to point out having Camper at the controls played a critical role in the team’s success.
“He’s a great coach who holds people accountable,” she said. “He makes sure we always are competitive without using the competitive aspect. He makes sure we are doing the right things. He’s checking up on us all the time to make sure we are doing well, especially during the pandemic. He’s always making sure we are safe, healthy and our families are healthy.
“He should get a lot of credit for what we did. He has done so much for us like making sure we have the right amount of training. We got a new strength coach this year and that helped out a lot. He made sure we were safe and so did our athletic director by doing things like making sure we were sitting in the right spots in classes and making sure we didn’t have a lot of exposure at school. He’s very family-like. He is very real and honest. He will not sugarcoat anything. He will tell you the truth and that’s what everybody needs.”
Essix first ran into Camper as a middle school basketball player.
“Where do I even begin about him?” she said after a long pause. “He’s very caring. His focus is always on making sure we get better and making sure we focus on ourselves and to not look too far into the future. That’s helpful when we were making this run during the season. He deserves so much credit, probably most of the credit.”
Essix added Camper was masterful in his approach to the team.
“He has different sides to him when we need him the most,” she explained. “If we are feeling down and things are tense, we get the calming side where he says, ‘It’s OK. Don’t worry and have fun.’ If we are out there doing great, he’s going to coach us technically and won’t spend too much time on the energy side of it because we’re already good on that side.”
Camper, who just finished his ninth year at Hoover and has taken three Buccaneers teams to the state final (after zero trips the previous 21 years of the school’s existence) questions the size of his role in the team’s magical season.
“I tried not to screw it up,” he said. “I tried to stay out of the way. We build our program off attention to detail. We want to do the little things better than anybody else. We don’t worry about athleticism or hitting, we focus on every point in every game and do our job with attention to detail.
“Our system is about passing. It’s as simple as it sounds. We aim to pass free balls perfect, never swing and miss or over pass, never miss a set-point serve — things kids don’t think about every day. We try to do the little things better than everybody else. This year they were lights out. We had almost zero errors in the finals. It was humbling to watch it all come together.”
Camper uses the word “grind” to describe what he witnessed this past season.
“This team was a grind,” he said. “They ground every point the same. You couldn’t tell if they were in a tight game. They were so cold-blooded on the court. They never got too up or too down and never got worried. I told them that first night to go get better and let’s see where we end up. Not a single starter missed a day of practice or a workout. It was a total dominance of everything we preach. And then the volleyball took care of itself.”
In the photo that accompanies this story Camper is seen wearing a camouflage hat. It’s part of his signature match garb that typically includes cargo shorts and a Hoover volleyball shirt. Which brings us to a favorite story from Essix regarding her coach.
“This year, we’re playing in the state championship and the head of the state association tells Camper he can’t wear the camo hat and shorts,” Essix described. “I’m thinking, ‘Don’t do that. He always feels comfortable in that, but you are supposed to dress more formally in the state tournament, I guess? But as soon as they finished all the announcements after we won. He put it back on. That was very special to see.”
McKinnon adds that Camper uses the phrase “Go us” frequently.
“That’s the motto. He says it a lot,” she said. “His big thing is to just have fun. He always tells us to have fun before each match.”
Camper said his team is bombarded with catchy phrases and slogans, but only one has major significance.
“Our thought process is what do you want Hoover volleyball to mean to everybody else?” he asked. “When people hear Hoover volleyball, what do you want that to mean? Up to this year it meant we can’t finish a big match and we can’t pass.
“We have great athletes, but we can’t get the job done. We changed that this year. What do you want Hoover volleyball to be? What do you want your legacy to be? We forever changed that this season. I am humbled and blessed by these girls for what they did for me, the program and Hoover High School.”