Tawa’s back! And he’s got the rundown on fall 2020 HS volleyball

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Fall HS volleyball 1/7/2020-Bayside volleyball
Bayside celebrates winning the 2020 Alabama state title/Dennis Victory photo

John Tawa is back! The longtime prep and club volleyball aficionado, who founded PrepVolleyball.com in 2003, joins the VolleyballMag.com team and begins with this coverage of the national high school season. This is the first of five stories (10 states each):

Girls high school volleyball in the fall.

It’s been a ritual in all 50 states since Michigan switched from playing in the winter in 2007 and Vermont became the last state to add the sport in 2016.

The novel coronavirus changed all that in 2020. Only 38 states attempted to have some semblance of a season this past fall, some more successfully than others. Vermont played matches outdoors. Several states started very late in the fall. Still others canceled their planned state championships. Most states played under strict rules that robbed high school volleyball of the camaraderie and school spirit that characterizes it.

Yet through it all – the masks, the sanitization, the electronic whistles, the temperature checks, the staying on one side, the lack of tournament play and so much more – the game endured. It wasn’t traditional but it was volleyball. And, given how COVID wreaked havoc on the spring club season, it was very much needed for so many girls whose adolescent lives revolve around the sport.

For the next few weeks at VolleyballMag.com, we’re going to recap what happened (or what’s about to happen) in girls high school volleyball in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 10 states at a time.  Please read them all. There will be a test at the end.

Hoover won the Alabama 7A state title

ALABAMA
Nickname: The Yellowhammer State
Capital city: Montgomery
Population: 4.9 million
Year of statehood: 1819

I’ve been covering girls high school volleyball nationally for more than 20 years now. In 2009, I attended the “Elite 8,” which is what Alabama calls its state championships. With students surrounding the court for the quarterfinals and semifinals, the charged atmosphere was unlike anything I’d seen before in high school volleyball. A switch to a new venue a few years ago sent students to the stands, which is a shame, but there remains one thing that stands out about volleyball in the state:

The sheer number of matches teams play every year.

It’s not unusual for top teams to play nearly 80 matches in a typical season. Spanish Fort went 72-6 in 2019! Even with COVID, 7A champion Hoover managed to go 50-1 this past fall. 5A champion Bayside Academy went 52-4. They play matches in Alabama. Lots of matches. Regardless.

Bayside’s state title was the biggest story of 2020 in the Yellowhammer State. The Admirals set two national records and one state record in the process. When Bayside swept West Point 25-17, 25-7, 25-10 the small school (711 students pre-K through 12) located in Daphne, on the Gulf Coast across the bay from Mobile, became the 2020 5A champions. The Admirals are the only school in state history to win titles in 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A and 5A.

The team won behind tournament MVP Brelynn Dailey, who had 37 assists. Ella Broadhead, Caroline Chastang, Emily Buhl and Colton Thompson combined for 37 kills and Luci Wilkerson had 12 digs to lead three in double figures for the Admirals, who dominated start to finish against West Point, which was making its first-ever appearance at the state tournament.

Bayside’s championship was its 29th all-time, breaking a tie with South Carolina’s Bishop England for most titles all time. Even more impressive, the Admirals won their 19th state title in a row, all under venerable head coach Ann Schilling, who has more than 1,500 wins and 26 state championships on her resume.

To put the length of the streak in proper perspective, here are some things that weren’t around when Bayside won the 2A title in 2002: iPhones, Facebook, Gmail and Netflix (as we know it).

As impressive as Bayside’s ongoing streak is, it could be even longer! The Admirals, who had won it all in 1998, ’99, and 2000, lost in five sets in 2001 to the eventual state champions. Schilling said that the key to continuing the streak in 2020 was experience.

“We were very balanced and had five seniors who had significant experience over the past years,” she said.

Schilling said that Bayside handled the COVID crisis well and that all players managed to stay healthy. The only disruption to the season was a nine-day hiatus in September due to Hurricane Sally.

This past fall marked the third season that Schilling coached with cancer. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in February, 2018.

“I feel awesome,” she said.  “Just had another perfect scan in September.”

Schilling plans to be on the bench again in 2021 when Bayside goes for its 20th championship in a row.

Alabama 7A champion Hoover dropped its first match of the season to powerhouse McGill-Toolen then did not lose again and won its first state volleyball title. The Bucs did not drop a set in their last 16 matches and lost only eight sets the entire season. That dominance had the state’s high school volleyball guru, Dennis Victory, declaring that the 2020 Hoover team might be the best the state has EVER seen, even better than those Huntsville teams that captured six large-class titles over seven years starting in 2006.

“That Hoover front line was the best I’ve seen,” he said. “Those Huntsville teams were great at setter and ball control with better than average offense to beat most teams. If the best Huntsville team faced this Hoover team at its best, I’m not sure they could have withstood all that firepower and athleticism.”

The centerpiece in the middle was 6-3 senior Gabrielle Essix. The Florida Gator signee had 17 kills in the championship sweep of Spain Park. Hoover also boasted 6-2 Mel Jones, Sydney Melton and junior OH Rya McKinnon at the net. McKinnon was named finals MVP after contributing 21 kills and 11 digs to the win. Setter Aly Durban, who joined Essix and McKinnon on the all-tournament team, contributed 47 assists and five digs. Audrey Rothman had 15 kills, eight assists and four digs for Spain Park in the loss.

Hoover coach Chris Camper said that he knew the talent he had on his team coming into 2020, which made the stress surrounding whether the state might cancel the season due to COVID almost unbearable.

“The number one factor in us getting the title was the players’ commitment,” he said. “Not just volleyball but with all of our safety protocols. They sacrificed most if not all of their social lives to avoid groups and situations that could jeopardize our team. They are a tremendously talented group who refused to lose.”

Hoover’s year include two sweeps over Bayside and a 2-1 tournament victory over Tennessee superpower Brentwood, leading some to wonder if the Bucs might have been among the national elite during the fall.

“Man we were the best team we saw all year … I mean anywhere … ” Camper said. “It was nuts to see this much talent all end up on the same team at the same time.”

Defensive-minded Mountain Brook swept Hartselle to win the 6A title one year after capturing the 7A crown. The Spartans survived top-ranked Hazel Green and star Gracie Lynn Butler in a thrilling five-set semifinal, which avenged a loss to the Trojans in the North Regional the week before. Mountain Brook has now won five championships over the past seven years.

Mountain Brook won despite graduating five key players from the 2019 championship team. Fourth-year head coach Vickie Nichols said that 2020 was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but her Spartans peaked at the right time. Senior outside Celie Field was a standout, as was outside Lilly Gilbert, who sat out the 2019 season. Senior libero Evelyn King, fittingly, was named MVP. Hartselle senior setter Gracie Tapscott went over 3,000 career assists in the final.

Montgomery Academy captured the 4A title by defeating Curry in four sets. The Eagles won for the third straight year but for the first time in Class 4A after moving up from 3A.

Ann Cobern Chapman was named tournament MVP after contributing 22 kills, six digs and three aces in the championship match. Anaya Thomas added 15 kills and seven digs. Garrett Scott finished with 29 digs and Sarah Emmons and Madi Caddell teamed for 49 assists.

Coach Julie Gordon, who is in her 41st year at the school and approaching 1,500 career wins, said that the school’s seventh title all-time was special because all eight seniors started at MA when they were in kindergarten.

“These girls have been playing together since they were in 5th or 7th grade,” she added. “These girls played for each other and did the little things in practice and matches that made the ‘big’ things happen.”

Rae Ann Hall and Grayson Evans combined for 41 kills and 50 digs in the loss for Curry.

Trinity Presbyterian got 42 assists and six digs from sophomore setter Addison Cherry in a dominating sweep of Plainview for the 3A title. The Wildcats won their second state title 26 years after capturing their first. Mary Elizabeth Hall and Emma Moody combined for 27 kills for the victors.

Small-school power Addison won its 12th title overall and seventh over the past eight years by defeating G.W. Long in Class 2A. The Bulldogs’ four-set win avenged last year’s loss to Long in the championship match.

Junior Addisyn Smothers led Addison (no relation, lol) with 27 kills and 13 digs. The Bulldogs also got 16 kills and four aces from Sunny Snoddy, the only senior on the roster; and 42 assists from Gracie Manley. Breanna Henning had 18 kills and 10 digs to pace G.W. Long. Freshman Emma Claire Long contributed 16 kills and 14 digs.

Bayshore Christian won its first AHSAA title in its first year of eligibility. The Eagles used a school-record 35 kills, plus 16 digs, from senior Cassidy Granger to outlast top-seeded Donoho, the defending champions, in four sets for the Class 1A title. 

The keys to victory, according to head coach David Omtvedt, were a balanced offense, strong ball control and good aggressive serving, which created a lot of free ball opportunities.

Brooke Kearney added 44 assists and five digs for the champions, who also got 14 kills and 21 digs from Ashlyn Whiteside. Lily Grace Wakefield, Mercy Mangum and Maggie Wakefield combined for 43 kills in the loss for Donoho.

Dimond HS of Alaska

ALASKA
Nickname: The Last Frontier
Capital city: Juneau
Population: 731,000
Year of statehood: 1959

In Alaska, volleyball started with August practices, first matches that same month or in September, and the expectation that the 4A and 3A state championships would be held, as usual, in the middle of November.

On October 13, three days after state championships were held in cross country and tennis, the Alaska School Activities Association canceled state championship events in all of the remaining fall sports, including volleyball, because of rising COVID-19 cases in Anchorage and other parts of the state.

The news wasn’t surprising. Anchorage-area volleyball teams had already experienced a two-week shutdown earlier in the season because of multiple COVID quarantines.

That made the November 7 clash for the Cook Inlet Conference title between Dimond and South Anchorage the de facto 4A state title match (with apologies to Wasilla, which finished its season unbeaten at 9-0).

Dimond and South Anchorage are household names in Alaska volleyball circles. Since 2005, the Lynx and Wolverines have captured EVERY 4A title, with Dimond winning eight and South taking seven, including the most recent in 2019.

Dimond, which placed third in the state in 2019, came into the match undefeated and favored to down a South Anchorage team it had twice handled in October. But South was motivated and, behind the play of Hanna Henrie and Emma McMillan, took two of the first three sets.

Dimond (13-0) fought back to win the final two sets to capture the title. Larssen Anderson (30 kills), Kadyn Osborne (35 assists) and Arianna Vreeland (29 digs) all stood out for the Lynx. Kim Lauwers’ team also got a boost from senior Jazzy Golly, who had nine kills in her first match back in two weeks after self-quarantining because of a positive COVID test for a close contact.

Lauwers, who herself contracted COVID a month after the season ended, said that playing volleyball in the age of coronavirus was challenging.

“We had a delay in starting our season,” she explained. “We were not even sure we were going to be able to play this year.  Once they gave us the ok to start, we were only allowed to “condition” 10 feet apart and each player could only touch her own volleyball.  It was hard but I can tell you that our players were more than willing to do whatever it took to be together and start our season.

“We had a lot of COVID-19 mitigation regulations that we followed, and we were very creative when doing single ball/player drills with conditioning, hoping at some point we would get to play a match.  After about two weeks of this, we were delayed again for another week.  I remember asking our players if they wanted to take some time off while we waited for a decision and they would not have it.  It didn’t matter, as long as we were together.”

After finishing third last season, Lauwers said the decision to cancel the state tournament for 2020 was tough on her players.

“I felt for our nine seniors because they worked so hard to be able to come back and take the state championship back to Dimond,” Lauwers said.  “Although we did not have a state tournament, our goal never changed from what it always is, which is to be state champions.  We prepared every day the same whether we were on or off the court, as much as we could with the limitations the season had.  We did not allow us to get down. We stayed positive and keep pushing forward. I was actually so proud of all of our seniors as they led us to an undefeated season.”

“I have coached for over 30 years and this season will go down to one of the most challenging but rewarding seasons of all,” Lauwers continued. “We were all experiencing something for the first time and worked hard mentally and physically to rise above it all.”

In 3A, the season ended with 2019 state runner up Kenai Central and Sitka both 9-0. Defending champion Homer was 8-3, with all three losses to Kenai.

Hamilton celebrates its Arizona title

ARIZONA
Nickname: The Grand Canyon State
Capital city: Phoenix
Population: 7.4 million
Year of statehood: 1912

Growing up, I always thought that the Grand Canyon was in Colorado. But it sits entirely in Arizona, in the northern part of the state, far away from Phoenix and even farther still from Colorado, which doesn’t share a border — only a corner — with Arizona.

I write about the Grand Canyon to symbolize the size of the expectations surrounding the program at Hamilton since Sharon Vanis first took the reins as head coach in 2006. For years, the Huskies were overloaded with talent. For years, they were pre-season favorites to contend in the state’s largest class. In many of those years they went into the state tournament as odds on favorite to win it all.

Only to fall short, three times in the state final.

Vanis had another talented team heading into the fall, the team to beat in 6A in my opinion. And the Huskies played very well. Perry was just slightly better. The Pumas ran the table on the regular season, including two wins over Hamilton; and entered the state tournament bracket as the top seed. Fred Mann’s team, led by senior setter Jenna Heller and senior hitters Ella Rud and Alyssa Montoya, swept its way to the state championship match. Hamilton, without the pressure of the favorite’s target, did likewise. The winner would be a first-time champion.

Perry captured the opening set with room to spare but Hamilton, with three dominating hitters on the pins in Jordan Middleton, the top junior in the country; Jahara Campbell and Micah Gryniewicz, romped in the second set. The Huskies rallied from a 22-21 set 3 deficit with four straight points, including three Middleton kills to set the stage for the four-set win.  Middleton finished with 20 kills. Campbell and Gryniewicz teamed for 26 more. Diana Ethridge finished with 44 assists and libero Tatum Thomas contributed 23 digs.

“I think we played very focused and very relaxed,” said Vanis. “We were physical at the net with our attack and block.  We knew we were capable of beating Perry. We also knew that it would take a total team effort, which we received.”

Vanis said the state championship will be a nice memory for her but it’s the road to the title that she’ll cherish even more.

“I think the players really appreciated every day they got to practice and play, because there was a time when we were not sure we would have a season,” she said. “This team had a great chemistry and work ethic.  It was great coaching them.  I thought our two seniors provided great leadership and our underclassmen knew their role and got better each day.  We were all grateful for the season.”

Montoya had 18 kills to lead Perry, which finished as 6A runner up for the second straight year.

Millennium won its second title in three years by sweeping Cactus Shadows in 5A. The win avenged the Tigers’ only loss of the season two months before.

Eryn Jones and Jordan Miller dominated on the pins for Julie Vastine’s squad, which would be three-time reigning champs but for a 16-14 Game 5 loss to Sunnyslope in 2019. Senior Lauren Wamsley was a standout in defeat for Cactus Shadows.

Salpointe Catholic won a tense, five-set affair versus Notre Dame Prep to take the 4A crown. The Lancers, who also won state titles in 2016 and 2017, snapped a five-match losing streak to NDP in the process.

Notre Dame Prep entered the state final undefeated at 17-0 and had dominated Salpointe in a late October meeting, but Salpointe won the first set start to finish to signal its readiness for the rematch. NDP took the next two sets only to see Salpointe pull away in the fourth to force a final test to 15 points. Three kills down the stretch from Emma Hugeback proved critical in the 15-11 Lancer win. 

Brandy Kishbaugh had 44 assists and Andrea Owens recorded 27 kills to lead the winning effort. Freshman Evan Hendrix tallied 19 kills and Denae Pitts had 41 assists and several dumps to pace Notre Dame Prep.

Northwest Christian wins the Arizona 3A championship

Senior-dominated Northwest Christian won its third straight 3A title in dominating fashion over Valley Christian. The Crusaders, with several players who rank among the best in Arizona, didn’t lose a match all season and held Valley Christian under 20 points in each of the three sets. Indeed, one could make a credible claim that Northwest Christian, which lost just one set all year, was the best team in the state regardless of classification.

“We were able to capture the state title through talented players and strong leadership,” coach Jenna Hope said. “We had a group of eight seniors who have been in the program and set the tone for our season.

Molly Kipp had 37 assists and McKenzie Wise and Reagan Hope had 15 kills apiece to pace Northwest.

“All 15 of our players showed up every day to practice and worked out, and they know what it looks like to play at a high level,” the coach said. “Every person contributed in their own way, so we couldn’t have won without being one unit.”

Hope added that the specter of COVID gave every match even more urgency.

“We never knew if the season could just end,” she said. “Every game could be our last so we had to hold on to every second of it.”

Scottsdale Christian swept to its fourth straight 2A title. The Eagles, under first-year head coach Halei Sanders, survived a tough first set to defeat Chandler Prep, 3-0. The team, which dressed only eight players, was led by senior Sophia Wadsworth and sophomore Sarah Wadsworth. Evi Yates concluded a standout career for Chandler Prep.

St. David rallied from a set down to defeat Anthem Prep for the 1A title, its second in succession and 11th all-time. The Tigers went 13-1 in a crazy season that usually had them playing in front of no fans. Home matches were played in the school’s cafeteria due to the floor being replaced in the high school gym. 

Arkansas Greenwood as it clinched the state title

ARKANSAS
Nickname: The Natural State
Capital city: Little Rock
Population: 3 million
Year of statehood: 1836

It was Halloween Night and Fayetteville head coach Jessica Phelan was driving home from Hot Springs, where her Bulldogs had just won the 6A title in four sets over Fort Smith Southside. Long after freshman Regan Harp had delivered the title-clinching kill and photos commemorating Fayetteville’s fifth title this decade had been taken, and soon after the players had been released to their parents, Phelan found herself alone on the bus ride home with just one player, her sophomore daughter Kennedy Phelan.

Jessica was pregnant with Kennedy when she took the job at Fayetteville some years after an All-American playing career at the University of Arkansas. She’d won state titles with great setters in 2012 (Aubrey Edie, Ole Miss) and 2015-2017 (Ella May Powell, Washington) and was staring at the third setter to take her to a title, her daughter Kennedy, who had delivered 58 assists.

“Kennedy gave me a big hug and started crying and said, ‘I’ve waited so long for this,’” Jessica said. “She really had been waiting for her turn at a title her whole life. To be able to share that moment with her is something we both will cherish.”

Fayetteville (21-1) was favored to win the 2020 title after taking two of three regular season matches from Southside. The Bulldogs showed their dominance by taking the first two sets.

Southside was my pre-season pick to win its first title since 2013. The Mavericks had a returning core of Hannah Hogue, Avery Fitzgerald, Aleigha Johnson and Toree Tiffee and was motivated after losing in the finals to Bentonville in 2019. Southside showed its grit by winning the third set and took an early lead in the fourth. Fayetteville, which had lost the momentum, then lost its best hitter when 6-1 senior Rosana Hicks left the game with a knee injury. Coach Phelan inserted sophomore Madeline Lafata into the lineup and hoped for the best.

Lafata delivered! She got a couple of kills right away to turn the tide.

“It really seemed to rally the momentum back,” Phelan said.

Phelan added that her players seemed “super determined that day to finish” and finish they did. The Bulldogs went on a 7-1 run to take a 21-16 lead and never looked back. Lafata produced six kills on 11 swings, which complemented Hicks’ match-high 19 kills, to catalyze the win. Brooke Rockwell had 18 kills, Harp contributed 12 kills and six blocks and senior libero Gracyn Spresser recorded 23 digs to earn MVP honors.

“This is a season where the team really bought into playing for each other and embracing the moment,” coach Phelan said. “I think the uncertainty of being able to have a season, or finish a season, provided a sense of urgency and while we had a hope and goal all season that would be able to finish in Hot Springs, at the same time it always felt a bit uncertain. Our program was just really grateful to get to play a season and winning the title was icing on the cake.”

Phelan added that this unusual season of COVID taught her that teenagers are a lot more resilient than given credit for.

“We were not able to attend summer camps or have fall tournaments in Arkansas, we had players who were injured, games canceled, and players who had to quarantine,” she explained. “It seemed like they were just remarkably able to continue to focus on what we could do and where they hoped to finish the season and embrace each day together.”

Greenwood won its first 5A title since 2017 by sweeping two-time defending champion Jonesboro. Senior setter Anna Johnson was named MVP after producing 26 assists and 10 digs while orchestrating the Bulldogs’ balanced offense. Caylee Ciesla had 10 kills to lead the offense, while 6-7 senior Hannah Watkins chipped in with eight kills and two blocks.

“This year we had a very hard working and talented group,” Greenwood coach Jennifer Golden said. “The team was led by nine seniors, who all played, and one freshman. These girls ended the 2019 season losing in the semifinals with one goal in mind: to make sure that we got back to the championship match and claim a victory. 

“My girls were focused and driven and motivated all throughout the spring and into summer anticipating their return to play and our season. The girls sacrificed a lot of social time in order to achieve the team’s goals. I could not be more proud of them and their commitment.”

Rosalind Lutes had 10 kills in the loss for Jonesboro, whose only losses in 2020 (after an undefeated 2019 campaign) were to state champion teams.

Nine days after Brookland stunned Valley View in the 4A Northeast Tournament Finals, the Blazers (25-1) turned the tables and swept to the 4A title, their sixth in a row. The win gave Margie McGee’s Valley View crew the most state titles, 15, in state history, one more than Jonesboro. Michaela Mears was named tournament MVP after contributing 10 assists, six kills and seven digs. Natalie Supine had 10 kills and four blocks. Olivia Miles had 14 digs and three aces. Ashton Hamrick had 13 kills to lead Brookland.

One year after winning the 2A title, Hackett moved up one classification and won again, sweeping Paris for the 3A crown. Junior Madeline Freeman, the coach’s daughter, was named MVP after amassing 14 kills, four aces and two blocks. Senior Rain Vaughn added eight kills and two blocks. She was part of a senior class that started the volleyball program at Hackett when they were in seventh grade. Alyssa Komp had 10 kills to lead Paris.

Mansfield won its first title since 2014 by dominating Lavaca in Class 2A. The title was the fifth all-time for Mansfield, but its first under head coach Kaylie Pyles, who was on two championship teams during her playing days at the school.

Sophomore Skylnn Harris had 13 kills and 2 aces and senior Brooke Wright, who was named MVP, had 14 kills and two blocks for the Tigers, who did not allow Lavaca to score more than 17 points in any one set. Lavaca was bidding for its first state title since 2008.

CALIFORNIA
Nickname: The Golden State
Capital city: Sacramento
Population: 39.4 million
Year of statehood: 1850

California is one of a dozen states that pushed its girls’ volleyball season back its traditional fall competition dates.

As originally contemplated, schools would be able to begin competition in mid-December, play a two-month regular season, with section and state championship events to follow.

COVID-19 refused to cooperate.

Updated guidance will put schools back on the court no earlier than January 25, but only if their county returns to the “Orange” tier by that time. Orange is one of five tiers and is for counties that have only moderate COVID impact. It is the second lowest tier. No county in the Golden State is currently better than the third tier (Red) and most of the state is under a “Stay At Home” order.

Anticipating a COVID surge in the late fall and into the winter, the CIF State Office on December 1 canceled all regional and state championships.

“We canceled regional and state championships for all of our Season 1 sports in order to provide for the longest regular season possible for the most student-athletes and schools,” said executive director Ron Nocetti. “We also assumed that travel would be restricted. Schools may only play against schools in their county or bordering counties also authorized by tier to play that sport.”

The state is divided into 10 sections, with the Southern Section being by far the largest. It comprises seven counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino.

As of Tuesday, the Southern Section was still hoping that girls’ volleyball would be able to compete over the winter. Assistant Commissioner Mike Middlebrook said that the girls’ calendar would remain without adjustment, including a “hard and fast” March 12-13 timeline for the Southern Section finals.

“If we have at least four counties playing by then, we would be able to run a championship,” he said.

COLORADO
Nickname: The Centennial State
Capital city: Denver
Population: 5.8 million
Year of statehood: 1876

Ninety-five percent of Colorado’s 363 member schools play volleyball. Because the Colorado High School Activities Association wanted to give them the opportunity to fully participate and engage with a sport at the start of the school year, volleyball was originally slated to play in the fall as part of Season A. Being an indoor sport, however, it was not approved for play in the fall due to COVID and moved back in the spring in Season C with other traditional fall sports.

Here is the calendar as it stands now:
First practice — March 15
First competition — March 22
End of the regular season — April 24
Regionals completed by —  May 1
State completed by — May 8

Varsity teams will play a maximum of 14 matches, with a minimum of eight required to make the playoffs (pending COVID waivers).

The adjusted playing dates mean that volleyball will share a season with club volleyball. Assistant Commissioner for Volleyball Bethany Brookens said in an online Q&A that students will be allowed to participate in both at the same time, with permission from their principal.

She added this: “With that being said, realistically, it may be tough for some players to do both … Families and student-athletes may ultimately have to make a choice and a decision that is best for them. We are in the midst of a pandemic, and things are not going to be normal, or fair. We are living through challenging times. If athletes choose to play club instead of high school this year, we understand their decision. At the same time, this may open up other opportunities for high school student-athletes who may not have had an opportunity to participate for the high school team otherwise. CHSAA is an organization for all student-participants, not only the high-profile players who may have college opportunities after they graduate.”

Scott Dowis is the head coach at Castle View High School and a former prominent club coach at MAVS-KC in Kansas City. He was asked how he thought the season would go.

“How club will factor in is an interesting question,” he said. “My impression is that most girls want to play both; however, the logistics and physical toll to the athletes are real concerns for players and coaches. In our conference, we have tried to create a schedule that allows players to do both. Our conference schedule is arranged around the qualifier schedule. We plan on playing a tri once a week over the five-week regular season. We have also changed from 5-set to 3-set matches. I don’t plan on playing any non-conference matches.

“Managing the practice schedule will be interesting. Personally, I think that high school coaches need to be as accommodating to clubs as possible if they expect to see any club kids in their gyms this year. I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask club players, who have been with their clubs for several months, to drop everything for high school ball.”

Dowis said he’s been in contact with all the major club directors to let them know the situation.

“I was letting them know that I will not punish kids who have to miss a day of high school practice to travel to a club tournament. I also plan on limiting the amount of attacking and jumping we do at every practice. Most days will consist of serve/pass and ball control and some days we may only watch video. Some kids may miss our practice if they have a club practice on the same day. I plan on treating this on a case-by-case basis. 

“It’s going to be weird but I think it will give our kids the best situation to play both club and high school. I really want to give our players, especially our seniors, an opportunity to represent their school again. So much has been taken away from our seniors this year. This is something I really want them to experience one more time.”

CONNECTICUT
Nickname: The Nutmeg State
Capital city: Hartford
Population: 3.6 million
Year of statehood: 1788

Connecticut did not conduct statewide championships in 2020. Instead, Sectionals served as championships for those volleyball teams that participated this past fall.

Just playing at all, however, was something of a miracle when you consider the timeline:

On July 31, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (“CIAC”) released a plan to play a shortened fall sports season that would start on September 24 instead of the original date of September 10.

On August 11, the state Department of Health recommended to the CIAC to move football and girls’ volleyball to the spring and also recommended suspending fall sports activities until at least two weeks after the reopening of in-person instruction in schools. The CIAC responded by putting fall sports activities on hold and revising its plan to play.

On August 23, the CIAC announced that all teams would be allowed to resume conditioning the following day and begin participating in non-contact skill work on August 29. Three days later, the CIAC updated its plan to play fall sports and pushed back the first scheduled date of regular-season games to October 1.

On September 4, the CIAC announced that volleyball players would have to wear masks in their matches during the season.

Emma Appleman

The decision to truncate the season and do away with state championships hit many teams hard, none harder than Guilford. Guilford went 23-4 in 2019, reached the Class L championship match and returned a majority of its roster, including Southern Connecticut Conference Player of the Year Emma Appleman, considered by most to be the top player in the state. Appleman, a College of Charleston recruit and daughter of longtime Yale coach Erin Appleman, shared her thoughts on how the season went for Guilford, which finished 14-0 and the SCC-C champions:

“I felt the most hectic before the season and for the first two or three weeks. That was when we were most unsure about what was to come. As one of the captains of the team I felt that it was our job to keep the team’s spirits high and keep the athletes informed, which was a struggle because no one had any information and the information we did have changed daily,” Emma Appleman said.

“For me, I tried to stay positive about our season, but in the back of my mind there was a little voice saying it could get canceled any day. In Connecticut, if a team was able to play, it had to be a smaller team than normal, which varied by school. Most schools did not allow fans and, if they did, it was only two people per athlete and, of course, everyone had to be wearing masks.

“For Guilford volleyball, we all wore masks at all times and this was strictly enforced. If someone was drinking water they had to be six feet apart, which we ended up exaggerating anyway to be safe. We were lucky enough to finish out the season without anyone getting sick or testing positive, though at different times some girls had to quarantine from contact tracing. 

“We also only played teams from the towns closest to us, none of which had a positive case that I know of. During our post-season experience, a couple of teams dropped out due to a rise in cases in their town, but I am unaware of any athletes that tested positive or experienced symptoms. 

“I felt that playing during the pandemic was more about being with my teammates and sharing our last year together.  I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to play my senior year during the pandemic and the memories will last forever.”

St. Marks went unbeaten as it won it all in Delaware

DELAWARE
Nickname: The First State
Capital city: Dover
Population: 987,000
Year of statehood: 1787

COVID-19 pushed the competition start date back into October, but that did not stop preseason favorite St. Mark’s from an undefeated season and its first single-class state title since 2011. The Spartans, who were runners up in 2019, defeated Padua for the title, avenging a loss in last year’s final. The championship was the eleventh all-time for St. Mark’s, second only to Ursuline’s 12. It also marked the eighth for current head coach Nancy Griskowitz over the past 22 seasons.

The championship match was played at St. Mark’s, not on the campus at the University of Delaware as is the tradition. Because of the virus, there were no students present, only two members of each player’s family. That did not stop St. Mark’s (15-0) from sweeping to the win. Sophomore Julia Yurkovich led the way with 17 kills and 13 digs. She delivered the title-clinching kill in an overscore third set, the only set that was decided by fewer than eight points. Mya Lewis aided the Spartan cause with 18 assists, 12 kills and seven digs.

“Each and every player on this incredible team worked so hard to bring home the championship,” Griskowitz said. “The team chemistry these special young ladies shared was extraordinary and significantly contributed to our undefeated state championship season.  What they accomplished in a strange and unusual year was just amazing!  They truly showed they were “Spartan Strong!”

Trinity Catholic celebrates beateing Westminster in the FHSAA State Volleyball Championship

FLORIDA
Nickname: The Sunshine State
Capital city: Tallahassee
Population: 21.7 million
Year of statehood: 1845

Trinity Catholic graduated eight seniors from its 2019 team, including Annie Cate Fitzpatrick (Penn State), Florida’s Miss Volleyball. The Celtics lost their first two matches of 2020; three of their first four. They were confirming what everyone thought: this was going to be a rebuilding year for Jeff Reavis’ team.

“The expectation from the local area was this was the year that we would be beatable,” Reavis said. “That we were a one-person team and now she was gone. The players heard it all and used it every day.”

Trinity started to turn things around at the Tournament of Champions early in October.

“There were signs of possibly something special,” Reavis said.

Six weeks later, Reavis and his players were celebrating their second state title in three seasons as the Celtics knocked off previously-unbeaten Westminster Christian for the 3A title. The win capped a playoff run that saw Trinity Catholic defeat three nationally-ranked teams, including a 3-2 nail biter on the road in the semifinals versus No. 9 Bishop McLaughlin and its senior superstar, Audrey Koenig.

Trinity was more efficient in sweeping Westminster Christian for the crown, but each of the three sets was close. The Celtics got star turns from two youngsters, sophomores Kiana Laborde (14 kills, 23 digs) and Amelia Fitzpatrick (seven kills, 10 assists, 12 digs); and two senior veterans, Chloe Teter (12 kills, three blocks) and Izabelle Sanchez (20 assists, 10 digs). Teter had the final kill in the 25-20, 25-23, 25-23 win.

Senior Saskia Hernandez closed out her brilliant career with 16 kills and 16 digs for Westminster Christian. Fellow senior Sydney Bond added 21 assists, 22 digs and seven kills.

Lyman captured its first 7A title by edging Lake Nona in a five-set, all-Orlando affair. The Greyhounds (29-1) used a massive effort from senior hitter Valeria Rosado (46 kills, 25 digs) to rally from down two sets to one to take the win. Rosado had 13 kills in the fourth set alone, a 25-23 win; and added nine kills in the fifth, in which Lyman opened a 6-1 lead that it would not relinquish.

Senior setter Alanys Viera also had a monster game for Lyman, recording 50 assists and 26 digs. Libero Gabriela Pagan added 22 digs of her own.

“What I will remember most about this season was the togetherness of this team, the commitment to accomplish our goals for the year and the determination to finish the job through all the trials and tribulations that this year brought,” said Lyman head coach Robert Drake.

Cambry Pope and Isabella Rujano combined for 46 kills and 43 digs in the loss for Lake Nona, which had nine seniors on its roster.

Mater Academy shocked defending champion Leon to win the 6A title. Leon was undefeated heading into the championship match but fell in four close sets to a Mater Academy team that captured its first state title in its first-ever finals appearance.

Angeles Alderete’s 19th kill was the title clincher. She had a double double (14 digs) for the Lions, as did setter Elaisa Villar (50 assists, 14 digs). Taylor Pagan added 20 kills, nine digs and four blocks.

The win capped a remarkable season for the Miami-area school, which, because of COVID-19, played only a handful of matches before the playoffs, all on the road due to gym reconstruction.

Cailin Demps had 21 kills and 19 digs in the loss for Leon. Macy Maxwell added 15 kills and 12 digs, while Alexa Washington contributed 39 assists.

Ponte Vedra
won a battle of unbeaten teams in Class 5A, sweeping Jensen Beach to win state for the second year in a row. The Sharks used a balanced attack orchestrated by Jessica Shattles (29 assists) and held Jensen Beach to .059 hitting in the 27-17, 25-21, 25-16 win. North Florida recruit Amy Burkhardt, who transferred from Woodson HS in Virginia for her senior season, led the Ponte Vedra attack with 14 kills. Naiya Sawtelle had 15 kills in the loss for Jensen Beach.

Bishop Kenny won a 29-27 marathon first set on its way to a four-set victory over Cardinal Gibbons for the 4A title. The title was the third all-time for the Crusaders but the first in six years. Sophomore Allison Cavanaugh had 19 kills and junior Bailey Chin had a double double (kills and digs) for BK, which was considered the match underdog. Dylan Andrews had 10 kills and 13 digs in the loss for Gibbons, which was seeking its 21st title.

Kelly Franklin led three hitters in double figures with 16 kills as Lake Worth Christian repeated as state champions with a sweep of St. John Paul II in 2A. Emily Caputo and Abigail Toeniskoetter added a dozen kills apiece for the Defenders, who won their fifth title in school history. St. John Paul II, which doesn’t have a senior on its roster, was paced by Sam Taylor’s 22 kills.

Sneads swept Newberry to win its state-record eighth straight 1A title in a classification designed for rural public schools. Kiara Garrett and Taylor-Reese Howell teamed for 22 kills and 28 digs in the win for the Pirates.

McIntosh win the Georgia championship

GEORGIA
Nickname: The Peach State
Capital city: Atlanta
Population: 10.7 million
Year of statehood: 1788

Two decades ago, the state of Georgia was not even on the volleyball landscape. Most looked at tennis as the top high school sport for girls.

How the times have changed!

Early in November, the Peach State crowned seven champions, each with rosters teeming with talent.

When McIntosh won its third straight title in 2019, the Chiefs, with most of their stars underclassmen, looked forward to 2020, when they could vie for a fourth and contend for the mythical national title.

Then kill leader and ball control star Erykah Lovett announced that she would forgo her senior season to enroll early at Long Beach State. That shook head coach Wendy Mabon and her crew.

“Erykah leaving early was unexpected,” Mabon said. “We definitely missed both her power at the OH position as well as her incredible ball control and defense.”

Even without Lovett, McIntosh achieved at a high level. With Ngozi Iloh and Alexa Markley spearheading the offense and Claire Lewis successfully transitioning from libero to setter, the Chiefs reached the 5A championship match with just one blemish in 34 starts. The concern, however, was the opponent: defending 4A champion Blessed Trinity, moving up a class.

The match was competitive and went four sets before McIntosh prevailed.

“I’ll always remember this season as one of overcoming challenges, Mabon said. “We overcame the impact of COVID, but also overcame the pressure that came along with competing for a fourth straight state title. That kind of pressure makes everything seem more important. Every match. Every point. This team took any and all challenges 2020 threw at them and just kept rising to the occasion. And they did it as a true team. That’s special.”

Markley, a junior, led the way for McIntosh with 21 kills. Three seniors, MJ Cackett (17 digs), Lewis (39 assists) and Iloh (16 kills and four aces), contributed significantly to the win. Freshman Mia Hood led BT with 12 kills.

“We had three seniors on this year’s team who made the goal as freshmen to win four straight state championships,” Mabon said. “I really think their leadership this year played a huge role. We faced some tough competition along the way and, at each challenge, the three seniors stepped up and really led us through!”

Alpharetta won the 7A title

Alpharetta stunned five-time defending champion Walton in four sets to win the 7A title.

“We graduated 8 seniors last year and did not see this coming,” head coach Grace Fossier said.

Alpharetta did, however, have superstar hitter Evoni Lemons back and she had a sensational season, capped by a 22-kill, 11-dig performance in the final.  Ava Pitchford chipped in with 30 assists and 11 digs and freshman Logan Wiley had 17 kills.

“This was the craziest season of my life (and probably everyone else’s),” Fossier said. “We valued each practice and game, knowing we could be shut down any time for things beyond our control. We lived in each moment and practiced our skills, as well as striving to find team unity. We had a returning starter, Evoni Lemons, who was a powerhouse this season (and previous seasons). Our setter, Ava Pitchford, was clutch, as well as our libero, Lauren Boyles. Our freshmen, Logan Wiley and Jada Nelson, stepped up their level of play, as well, and made great contributions.”

Fossier added that COVID-19 remained on the team’s mind from the first practice to the last point.

“I just remember thinking we may not be allowed to finish the season,” Fossier said. “We hammered that into the girls to be grateful for each moment in the gym.  We cleaned and hand-sanitized like never before; we knew that we had to try to not even catch the common cold, because it’s a virus in the Corona line, and we did not want to get shut down. It’s still a miracle to me that we were allowed to have a season and finish it — we are so happy for that.”

Sophomore Mary Neal led the way for Walton with 18 kills and 23 digs. Lia Ekendahl added 20 kills, Ashlyn Goolsby contributed 42 assists and libero Emery Dupes concluded a stellar four-year career with 12 digs and four aces.

Buford won a four-set decision over Pope in 6A, giving the Wolves their first title since winning back to back in 2015 and 2016. Sydney Adams delivered the clinching kill, which snapped Pope’s 18-match winning streak and denied the Greyhounds a second title in three years.

Ashley Sturzoiu led a balanced offensive attack for Buford with 14 kills. Mikayla Hayden added 12 kills and Kiana Polk chipped in 10. Grace Adams had 52 assists and Macy Upshaw had 41 digs.

Sophie-Katherine Harvey led Pope with nine kills and three aces. Addie Eiland contributed six kills and five blocks.

Marist swept Northwest Whitfield to take the 4A title, the program’s ninth championship all-time and first since the 2017 season. Jenna Woodward had 11 kills and Emerson Mazzone delivered 37 assists for the victorious War Eagles, who started the season 8-8 before winning their final 11 matches to take the title. Junior Emma Hayes had nine kills and 12 digs for Northwest Whitfield, which was making its first-ever appearance in a state championship match.

Westminster won its ninth state title in program history by smashing Morgan County in Class 3A. The Wildcats, who won their first title since 2016, did not give up more than 20 points in any set during their postseason run. The win capped an amazing career for Mary Emily Morgan, one of many seniors who contributed mightily to the winning effort.

Despite having virtually a brand new team, Pace Academy reigned supreme again in 2A/1A, edging first-time finalist Gordon Lee in five sets. With the win, the Knights raised the championship trophy for the fourth consecutive season. The team was sparked by several freshmen, including Grace Agolli (22 kills, 19 assists, 15 digs and four aces), Dhru Lalji (24 digs, four aces) and Ellie Siskin (15 kills). Junior Brooklyn Hudson’s 28 kills paced Gordon Lee.

Holy Innocents

Holy Innocents Episcopal upended defending champion Hebron Christian, 3-1, to win the Class A-Private title. Holy Innocents (35-4) defeated Hebron Christian for the third time in four meetings in 2020. The title was the first for the Golden Bears since winning three in a row from 2013 to 2015.

Four seniors led the way for Taylor Noland’s team. Ellen Goetz had 32 assists and five aces. Paige Collins contributed 22 kills and nine digs. Carolyn Harper chipped in 14 assists, nine digs and four aces. Maddie Whittaker added 25 digs.

“In 2019, we had no seniors and lost in the final four match in five sets,” Noland said. “I had a senior class of seven this year. We knew this was our year. I started telling the girls we were going to win the state championship in May. As long as there was a season it was ours to earn. 

“The kids bought in all season. The team even went to online learning the last two weeks of the season so no one would get contact traced. It took total compliance from every player, parent, and coach. We were so lucky to get all the way through!”

Contact John Tawa at jtawa@volleyballmag.com
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