Wesleyan’s Ashley Moody (2) and Katie Van Laeke (3) try to block the shot of Westminster’s Ellie Hartman (12) during the Class AA state volleyball championship Saturday afternoon at Marietta High School in Marietta. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)
In reality, it had only been three seasons since Wesleyan last won a state volleyball championship before Saturday.
But for a program that had become accustomed to being among the state’s elite after winning five titles in a six-year span from 2004-09, its seems like an eternity.
So, it is understandable that the Wolves (37-10) are still reveling in their 25-21, 25-21, 22-25, 25-22 win over previously top-ranked Westminster in Saturday’s Class AA championship match at Marietta Garden.
“I’m actually sitting in my office with one of my players watching the (match) over again and kind of reliving it,” Wesleyan coach Ted Russell said when contacted Tuesday. “It’s starting to sink in. When we came back to school (on Monday) and everyone was congratulating us, it (had) pretty much sunk in. It’s a very exciting time because it’s been a while.”
No matter how long the championship “drought,” or how relative it may seem to some, the excitement created by Saturday’s win — keyed by a big day from the likes of Katie Van Laeke (17 kills), Lauren Frerking (17 kills, nine digs, three block assists), Natalie Connor (16 digs) and Emma Bivings (1 kills, six digs, two aces) — was undeniable — and understandable.
That’s because the title was not only the first in a few years, but also because the team that won it was one of Wesleyan’s more unique teams to win one.
The make-up of this year’s team was one that Russell said he hadn’t seen in many years.
“On a lot of our teams in the past, we had quite a few kids who played club ball (during the summers),” Russell said. “This is a team that didn’t have as many club kids, and there were so many pieces of the puzzle that we had to put together.”
That puzzle began to get even more complicated when injuries began to pile up near midseason.
However, with the help of his assistant coaches and the enthusiasm of players to take different roles on the team, Russell managed to find the right pieces to fill the openings.
“I think the adversity of playing without a full line-up for so long, sometimes it shows you better combination, and that helped us,” Russell said. “Hannah Hoskins — who had been our right-side hitter, but had played libero in club ball — we moved her (back) to libero in September, and once she adjusted, it really helped solidify our defense.
“We had Noni Thompkins at right-side, and took her out of the middle. And Ashley Moody really stepped up there. We had contributions from everybody, and then we got Natalie Connor back healthy in October. Then we needed Kristen Pack to play right back, and she really gave us speed back there at that position. Just moving everybody around was big, and then we had Katie Van Laeke and Emma Bivings on the outside, and Lauren Frerking was a rock in the middle. Then, of course, Kendra (Koetter) ran the offense (at setter). This team just learn how, if everybody worked hard together and played for each other, they could accomplish anything they set their minds to.”
And the Wolves, particularly the team’s seniors, set their minds on getting back to the top of the state volleyball mountain, a journey completed with Saturday’s win.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Van Laeke said after Saturday’s win. “Words can’t describe how I’m feeling. This was the last game for the seniors, and we want to leave it all out on the court.
“All of these years with no state titles, it finally feels like all this hard work has paid off.”
Russell agrees, particularly with how quickly everything fell into place near the season’s end.
“Two weeks ago, if you’d asked me if we could beat Westminster, I’d have said it would take a miracle,” Russell said. “But they progressed (from match to match) and showed up (Saturday) with a ton of confidence. It is a team that overachieved, but we had more big wins this season than we had in a long time.”