Back when they were tiny sixth-graders at Hunter Middle School, Kelsey Chernak, Karly Newman and Isabela Zdunek could only dream about where their volleyball careers would take them.
Four seasons after teaming up with former Ooltewah Middle School rival Leondra Barrett, they can see that the path they began back then was one leading to Murfreesboro. They hope it ends with a state championship.
Now seniors at Ooltewah High School, the four players will lead the Lady Owls onto the court today for their first Class AAA state volleyball match together, and the first for their school since 2009. The moment last Thursday night when a side out clinched a 15-13 fifth-set victory and a state-tournament berth for Ooltewah will be forever etched among the many memories the four seniors have made together.
“The first thing we did was just collapse on the court,” Newman said as she recalled the intense 3-2 victory in front of a roaring Ooltewah crowd and the ensuing tearful celebration. “It just didn’t feel real.”
“It didn’t hit me until I walked into the gym the next day,” Barrett added. “The lines were still on the court, and I just looked around and thought, ‘Wow. We actually did it’.”
Ooltewah head coach Elaine Peigen and assistant Heidi Moses are certainly no strangers to the state tournament. Today marks the ninth trip that Ooltewah has made to Murfreesboro with Peigen as head coach, and the Lady Owls have experienced plenty of success there.
Their accomplishments include two runner-up finishes, but the last few seasons have ended with disappointing losses that have left Ooltewah short of its state-tournament goal. But after watching Barrett, Chernak, Newman, and Zdunek play together as freshmen, Peigen and Moses knew this was a group of players with the potential to achieve big things together.
“This group of seniors has been playing together for four years,” Peigen said. “They bring experience and competitiveness, and they work hard all the time. I’m just so happy for them. They’re all-around great girls.
“When they’re on the court together, they’re just in sync. They’ll see things out there and come back and make suggestions. They’re very smart with the ball, and the mental part of the game has been a big key to our success.”
Besides playing together since sixth grade, Chernak, Newman, and Zdunek also have the advantage of having played under Moses since then. Their first year at Hunter was also her first year as the middle school’s coach, and the former East Ridge volleyball standout had the privilege of introducing them to the sport.
“They were just so young, and enthusiastic, and eager to learn,” Moses said. “They still are, but they’re young ladies now. I’m just glad that I got to be there to help teach them the love for the game.”
The players’ love for the sport of volleyball may be equaled only by their love for one another. Although it took some time for Barrett, who played for Peigen at Ooltewah Middle as an eighth-grader, to make the transition from opponent to teammate, the four seniors have united into a close-knit group.
“It was awkward for me at first,” Barrett said. “I was coming in from another school, and they had all been together for a long time. Now we’re all like sisters. We never want to leave here.”
The players joke about attending “Ooltewah College” so that they can return to the school they love again next year, but are well aware that their time as teammates is drawing to an end. But because their close relationship translates so well onto the court, it might be enough to earn them several more days of playing together.
“We’ve been able to learn about each other,” said Chernak, who has the responsibility of setting the ball for her teammates to hit. “By now, we just know how the other person’s going to react. We can call for the ball or yell at each other to back off.”
“You can just see the chemistry on the court,” Zdunek said. “There’s a trust that we have in each other.”
The state tournament is an intense environment that can put even the strongest trust to the test, but the Ooltewah seniors are as well-prepared as any players in the state to rise to the occasion. And as they take the court today, the Lady Owls know that no matter where their journey ends, what matters most is that they traveled together.
(E-mail Jaime Barrett at email@example.com)