“Today’s win was a perfect example of how this team has continued to focus on our motto from day one,” said LCC head coach Dave Franklin who led his team to a 27-2 mark. “We always talk about playing the next point, the next game or the next match. Our ability to shake off our mistakes like in games one and four have really allowed this team to bounce back every time we faced adversity.”
Alexander never trailed in game one as the Lady Spartans held off a late charge from LCC. After Alex built a 20-15 lead, Central Catholic went on a10-5 run to catch the Spartans at 25, but a service error followed by a hitting error gave Alexander the early one game to none advantage.
Although Alexander hung on to take the opening set, the momentum had started to shift. Central Catholic had made eight of their eleven, game one errors in the early going, and has the T-Birds sharpened up they started to take control. Central Catholic began using an effective serving game and great defense at the net to take over the match.
The serving of JoJo Krieg and Lauren Thomas made it difficult for Alexander’s serve-receive to start any sort of offense. Aces from Krieg and Thomas accompanied by a pair of Alexander hitting errors allowed CC to start quickly in game two. The T-Birds also got their balanced hitting attack going as Krieg, Kacy Querry, Rachel Illig, and Danielle Taflinger all recorded kills as Central Catholic jumped out to a 13-5 lead and never looked back evening the match at a game apiece.
Game three was much of the same as LCC sprinted out to a 12-4 lead. Alexander coach Bradd Jeffers tried to stop the bleeding calling both of this timeouts within this run but Krieg and company was just too much. Krieg, a junior, enjoyed three service aces during the early run and setter Alexis Diglio – who ended the championship match with 43 assists – continued to get an array of T-Bird hitters involved in the offense. Krieg led three T-Bird players in double-figure kills with 18 while Taflinger added 13 and Illig added 10.
“They did a good job of mixing up their attack,” said Alexander senior libero Lauren Thomas who recorded 22 digs in her final high school match. “I wasn’t reading things very well and they were hitting their spots.”
Alexander regrouped and came out with more energy in game four. The tight fourth set saw eight ties and five lead changes, but when Alexander took an 18-14 lead the title match seemed to be headed towards a fifth and deciding set; however, a 9-1 run – sparked by the serving of Ashley Mooney and back-to-back kills from Krieg – had CC up 23-19 and knocking on the door for the championship. Alexander did score the next point on a Lauren Raines to Whitney Smith kill to cut it to 23-20, but an Alexander hitting error on the next play set up championship point for the T-Birds. Central Catholic finished the job as a kill from Diglio to Krieg resulted in a state title for the Thunderbirds.
Krieg, Taflinger, and Illig took over the net as the T-Bird trio combined for the before mentioned 41 kills, and with the help of Querry and Diglio, also led a front row defense that blocked 12 Alexander attacks.
The few times Alexander did find an opportunity the T-Bird back row was just as stingy. Diglio’s 15 digs led four Central Catholic players in double-figures as Abbey Mooney dug up 12 balls and Krieg and Chelsea Crow chipped in 11 each to lead a defense that made life extremely difficult for the Alexander offense.
“We were just out of system for the majority of the match,” said Coach Jeffers. “When we were one-on-one we were fine, but they served tough and we didn’t pass very well, so it just seemed like we were hitting into a big double block all day.”
Alexander was led by 11 kills from junior middle-hitter Betsy Irwin, while junior setter Lauren Raines dished out 30 assists. Whitney Smith led the Spartan defense with 24 digs. Alexander, who finishes its season an impressive 25-4, was forced into 34 hitting errors while only recording 39 kills.
“The expectations are so much higher in our program now compared to a few years ago,” said Jeffers who will say goodbye to two seniors in Thomas and Allie Sayers. “I think that is what makes this hurt so much for the girls. The goal wasn’t to win the regional and make it back to the final four; the goal was to win the whole thing. I am really proud of the girls and have been blessed to coach a pair of seniors that work as hard as LT and Allie.”
Alexander will return a lot next season with Raines returning to run the 5-1 offense that will include both middles as well as Smith. Coach Jeffers called Smith their “go-to kid” during the season, but Smith was quick to point out that the balanced attack is what has made this team so good.
“We all have roles on this team and I just do my best to play mine,” said Smith who was held to only eight kills on Saturday after being in double-figures in every tournament match during this magical run. “Jami (referring to Jami Turrill who led Alexander to the final four last year and now plays college ball at the University of Charleston) was a great leader last year who taught me a lot about wanting the ball. When the game is on the line, I want Lauren (Raines) to come to me.”
Central Catholic will have a good bit of talent back for its title defense as well, as the T-Birds only graduate two seniors in Crow and Thomas, but for now there is some celebrating of this year to do.
“This is like nothing else in the world,” said Krieg who was the Northwest Conference Player of the Year. “To come here with our fans and teammates that you have worked so hard with and win a state title is an incredible experience.”
“Coach (Franklin) has made us believe in each other and this is the best feeling you could ever imagine,” said Taflinger agreeing with her teammate Krieg. “We have been working for this for a long time now, and it feels awesome to be state champions.”