Undoubtedly, the goal for every high school athlete or team is to win a state championship.
It doesn’t matter the sport, winning the state’s top prize is always the target when preparation for a new season begins.
You’ve heard the old saying about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat?” You get to experience both when a state title is on the line.
I’ve had the honor of covering numerous state championships in my long run as a sports writer and they’re special. Perhaps the most dominant team has been the Bradley wrestling program, which has won more state titles in the last 25 years than anybody.
But when it comes to total state titles, I don’t think there’s another school around that has won more than Baylor.
I’ve covered big wins in cross country, track, wrestling, softball and volleyball. The most recent took place last week in Murfreesboro when the Lady Red Raiders won their fourth state title in volleyball and second under current head coach Sarah Lail.
The latest may have been the most impressive ever.
Baylor finished runner-up to Briarcrest last year after its best player Gabby Gray suffered a severe ankle injury in the semifinal and wasn’t able to play in the last match. Gray was among a group of seniors including Jane Wilson, Paris Buckner and Lily Turner who won a ton of matches and won another state title back in 2014.
Many folks in the know felt like Baylor would be hard pressed to repeat that success.
This year’s team didn’t have a so-called superstar, but they had a group of young ladies who came together and played like a team.
This group was unique. They are all smart, good looking and really good volleyball players. They fight with each other from time to time like typical teenagers, but they’re really like a big family of sisters who really love each other and are willing to do what’s necessary to help when needed.
These are young ladies you hope your son brings home from college one weekend in the future.
The season started off great with 31 straight wins where the Lady Raiders only lost one set during that time. They went to Arizona to participate in a Nike Tournament of Champions, where they faced some of the best high school teams in the nation.
The first day was rough as Baylor lost all three matches, but came back the second day to win three of four. That experience alone proved to the Lady Raiders that they had the talent and the ability to play with anybody.
Baylor finished its season with five matches in three days at Nashville, where they suffered their only loss to a Tennessee team when they got beat by Brentwood Academy. Baylor had beaten them by a 3-0 count here, so they were awarded the region title for the fifth straight year after losing 3-1 on the Eagles court.
That set the stage for last week’s state tournament.
Baylor never lost another match as they beat Father Ryan and Brentwood Academy on the first two days before beating that same Briarcrest team in the final that had beaten them a year ago.
None of those matches were easy.
Baylor won the first two sets with relative ease against the Lady Saints in the final before Briarcrest bounced back to win the third. Baylor trailed 23-20 in the fourth set before Lail called a timeout. The difference was 24-22 a minute later and the thoughts of a fifth set were looking more and more likely.
The Baylor girls had other plans.
In a turnaround that’s still hard to describe, Baylor scored the next four points to win. The championship point happened when a Briarcrest spike came up short in the net before falling harmlessly to the floor, setting off a Baylor celebration like never before.
It was quite an emotional experience. Players and coaches from both teams had tears streaming down their cheeks. I must admit that there was a lump in my throat as tears came from my eyes as well.
It was one of those moments you wish would last forever, but to experience the joy and jubilation the Baylor girls shared was one I’ll never forget.
I had told coach Lail that I wanted to do a follow-up story on her team and the success they had, so I went over to Baylor Tuesday afternoon when classes ended as the Baylor girls gathered in Lail’s office to pick out rings to represent their latest accomplishment.
It was interesting to hear what these young ladies had to say about the season and the state tournament experience.
“Losing to Brentwood Academy during the regular season was a wakeup call, but we worked so hard to get back to state and I never wanted to win a volleyball match any more than the last one against Briarcrest,” said Sarah Sumida, one of two Baylor seniors who was Region MVP in a unanimous vote before earning state tournament MVP.
“I normally don’t get nervous before a match, but I was that day as I knew it was my last match and I wanted to make the best of it. We were down in that last set, but we just kept pushing. It was a great honor to be named tournament MVP, but it could have gone to anybody as the entire team played great that day,” she added after recording seven kills, 17 digs, 39 assists and an ace in that final match.
She finished the season with 1,480 assists and now has 5,262 for her career, which is a TSSAA record.
Lexie Laurendine was the other senior who has been at Baylor for two years after transferring from St. Andrews-Sewanee. She had 10 kills in that final match.
“We lost four really good players from last year’s team and most people didn’t expect us to be as good, but we wanted to prove that we were still Baylor volleyball,” Lexie said Tuesday afternoon.
“It was more redemption than revenge against Briarcrest, but we really proved ourselves and it was an awesome experience as we were ready for them this time,” she added.
Ally Craig had 16 kills and 10 digs in that final match and led the team with 414 kills for the season. She had shoulder surgery in January and didn’t get to play as much during the off-season, but she was ready to go when fall workouts began.
“This is the best team I’ve ever been on. We let those Briarcrest girls know they beat us last year, but it wasn’t going to happen again as we all stepped up. Going to the tournament in Arizona was good for us as it made us more aware of what we needed to work on and really prepared us for state. It’s nice to have a little break,” she nodded.
Denver Rogers was another of the unsung heroes who had a dozen kills and 10 digs in that last match.
“We all worked so hard to get there and we played amazing in that last match. We never gave up, even when we were down. We just knew we had to fight as hard as we could. It wasn’t just another match, but it was the best feeling ever when it ended. We were all ready to go that day,” Rogers expressed.
Elizabeth Case had three aces and 11 digs in that last match.
“Last year was so disappointing, but we turned things around this year. We had a lot of confidence going into the state, but we were confident and not cocky. I think we just wanted it worse than they did, but I’ve never been a part of anything like it in my life.
“It took me a second for that winning point to sink in, but it felt so good to finally beat Briarcrest,” she smiled.
While all of these girls are really talented athletes, so is Zoe Ubamadu, a bubbling 14-year-old sophomore who really made her presence felt along the front line. This was her second year to play varsity and she too remembered vividly what last year’s defeat felt like.
“We were all so low after losing to Briarcrest last year, but it was a journey for us this year. We got so much better as the season went on, but it became a matter of just how much we wanted it at the end. It was such a great feeling to win as it was a combination of relief and joy. That last set was way too close for comfort, but we never lost our focus,” she laughed.
Kurt Emmanuele is now one of the Baylor assistant coaches who was Baylor’s first volleyball coach back in 1991. He helped Baylor win back to back titles in 1997-98.
“That was wonderful and not really expected at all,” he responded to the question regarding his feelings about this team.
“We lost four solid seniors from last year and it’s hard to think about coming back again, but we were a lot better than we thought we’d be and we knew we had a shot midway through the season. We were all totally fired up and we’re hard to beat when we play like that.
“These girls never got too high or too low as they were positive all year. We knew we had to bring our A-plus game in that final match, but what an incredible ending. There’s nothing like it,” he suggested.
Lail had burned the midnight oil before the semifinal match with Brentwood Academy, but she got a good night’s sleep before that final match as she was confident in her team’s ability to win that last match.
“I was confident going into that last match. I knew if we showed up and played to our ability, we could win. Even when we were behind in that fourth set and looked like we might have to play a fifth, we stayed aggressive. We were playing to win instead of playing not to lose. We went after them and totally laid it on the line,” she said with a huge smile.
Lail now has two state titles in her nine years as the leader of the Baylor team.
“Both are special, but you never forget the first one,” she explained.
After such a long, grueling week of competition, Lail watched the entire match again once she got home Thursday night.
“So often, I’m focusing on what we did wrong and how we correct our mistakes, but when I watched the replay, I realized that the other team was making some pretty amazing shots. It was a lot easier watching it on video, knowing what the outcome was, but all of our girls were on their game that day and there was so much energy.
“What a great way to end another great season,” Lail concluded.
Baylor finishes with a record of 42-5.
Sumida and Laurendine will both graduate, but there’s a strong group returning and some outstanding players coming up from the middle school team.
Chances are good that Baylor will be right back in the thick of things again next year. Whether they are able to repeat is still a long way down the road, but what a great season they just had and it all finished on a positive note.
I’m just thankful that I had the opportunity to be part of it.
(email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)