There were many compelling storylines this past fall in girls high school volleyball. This is our top 10, with apologies to Smyrna (Delaware), Lydia Chinchar and Carrollwood Day (Florida.), Lincoln Southwest (Nebraska), Sisters (Oregon) and Louisiana superstars Camryn Chatellier and Sophia Bonnaffee, all of whom fell just outside the list.
10. Pirates rise from depths to earn booty
Oceanside was 9-17 indoors in 2022. In 2023, the Pirates improved 15 matches in the win column, won their first San Diego Section title in Div. 4 and reached the California Div. V state title match for the first time in the school’s history. Coach Nathan Fristed’s team lost in the state championship match, but it battled into five sets with champion Crystal Springs Upland, not bad for a team that Fristed took over six years ago when Oceanside was in the midst of a 56-match league winless streak.
The turnaround started on the beach in the spring, when the Pirates won a league title for the first time in the 116-year history of the school; and it continued this fall, with an eight-match postseason winning streak heading into the state final.
“Every team sets that goal to start the season — win league, win CIF, take it to state,” said Fristed. “You’d like to believe that’s true, but seldom is it an opportunity for each team. We knew we could win CIF [San Diego Section Division 4] because we’d played and beaten everyone in our division. We swept that and this team then believed it could win state and started to gel together. It was an awesome run.”
9. O’Dell beckons
On November 17, 2018, Fairport (NY) boys volleyball upended Sachem North for the New York Division 1 title. That same day, three time zones to the west, Mater Dei captured the California girls volleyball state title in the Open division by sweeping Central of Fresno.
John O’Dell is the longtime head coach at Fairport. His younger brother, Dan, is the longtime head coach at Mater Dei.
Fast forward five years and a day. Fairport, under O’Dell, won its first state title since 2018 with a sweep of Shenendehowa. Several hours later, Mater Dei, under O’Dell, upended Archbishop Mitty in four sets to win the CIF Open state title, the first for the Monarchs since 2018. Mater Dei, incidentally, also clinched the mythical national championship with the win.
Two titles for the coaching brothers, one on each coast, on the same day in 2018. And again in 2023.
8. No joy in Illinois
Four Illinois schools, Lemont, Altamont, Belleville East and St. Teresa, were all denied the chance to compete for state titles by being disqualified from regional play by the Illinois High School Association because they played more than the 35-match regular-season limit.
Lemont’s exclusion caused the most uproar because the team was poised to make a deep run after going 27-9 during the regular season, including 13-0 without a dropped set in the South Suburban Conference.
“The season limitation by-law exists in every IHSA sport in order to provide competitive equity among the schools as they enter into competition in the IHSA State Series,” IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said in a prepared statement. “As unfortunate as the result may be, these teams received a competitive advantage that no other team in the tournament received, and there is over 40 years of precedence dictating that violating this rule excludes a team from State Series participation. Neither myself, the IHSA staff, nor the IHSA Board of Directors derive any joy in delivering this decision, but we are tasked with upholding the rules our member schools put into place.”
7. Briarcrest Christian “Carries On”
In 2022, Briarcrest Christian won its fourth Tennessee state title over the five-year coaching tenure of Carrie Yerty. Yerty, a former collegiate head coach at Memphis and Wyoming, was unable to attend the state championship for health reasons but she did make it to the school for the banner celebration. Three months later, on Jan. 24, 2023, Yerty passed away after a long bout with colon cancer.
Briarcrest Christian won again in 2023, behind a freshman, Breya Dawson, who never played for Yerty. The title was the 11th in program history for the Saints and the first for first-year head coach April Jauregui, Yerty’s close friend, assistant coach and mentor.
Jauregui assumed the head coach’s position for this season, but she was sure to remind everyone that the Saints were playing for Yerty. The team donned “Play for Carrie” T-shirts to warm up before matches all season long.
Here’s what Jauregui, herself a former collegiate head coach, had to say about the match:
“Going into this season I knew we had the talent in the gym to compete for another State Championship, but we lacked experience, which can only come from being in big games and situations. We also needed to work to continue the winning culture of Briarcrest Volleyball.
“It is hard to follow Carrie Yerty. I did it before at the University of Memphis. Albeit, under much different circumstances this time around. I took over coaching the program before the start of last season (2022), when Carrie was too sick to come anymore. That was rocky, but at the end we found a way to play through the grief, come together, and fight for her. We graduated almost our entire starting line-up, one that included four college level players.
“So this was a re-load year. This season, we wore shirts that said ‘Play for Carrie,’ but it was really more about honoring her legacy and what she has built here at Briarcrest. It was not an easy road; in fact, about a month ago, we had a string of losses and poor performances. I wasn’t sure how it would all pan out. But, credit to my coaching staff, we got these girls to buy in and compete.
“They were so locked in at the end of the season. They were able to handle setbacks better. They had built that resiliency. The fight was there. That is the most rewarding as a coach because that is what Carrie was all about. She was a fighter and, ultimately, that’s what it means to play for her. To give everything you’ve got until the last whistle. For Carrie, that meant fighting cancer. For these girls on this team, it meant learning what it takes to overcome an obstacle. For us as coaches, we know it’s about preparing them for the hardships of life. We can’t control what happens to us; we can only control how we respond. We will let God take care of the rest.
“This win means a lot to me and our coaching staff. I miss Carrie more than I can put into words. When I took over at Memphis at the young age of 28, I stupidly tried to do things my way. This go around, I knew better. I followed an amazing coach. She was one of my best friends, my mentor, my boss, and most importantly my sister in Christ. We are forever bound by that. I am still me, and I have my own style of coaching, but I focus on trying to do things as I believe she would do them. I am intentional about keeping the traditions of Briarcrest volleyball alive and honoring her the best I can. Once a Saint, always a Saint.”
6. Thrilla in Wasilla
For 17 years, the Alaska large-class state champion was either South Anchorage or Dimond, two Anchorage-area schools. Before that, Service, another Anchorage school, won the 4A title in 2003 and 2004. You had to go all the way back to 2002, when Juneau-Douglas prevailed, to find a large-class champion from outside the state’s largest city.
That changed in 2023, when Wasilla completed a sweep through 4A with a win over Bettye Davis East. Wasilla is situated 43 miles northeast of Anchorage, with the Cook Inlet in between.
Senior Rylee Pitney, a 6-3 OH, had the final kill in the win. She finished with 491 kills and 164 aces and was VolleyballMag.com’s Alaska Player of the Year.
5. Harp strings Fayetteville along
Fayetteville went into 2023 with three consecutive Arkansas large-class state titles to its credit, but without 14 players from last year’s title team, including all but one starter. The holdover was Regan Harp, a middle for the Bulldogs in 2022.
Harp moved to the outside for 2023 and put the team on her back on the way to a fourth straight title for Fayetteville. The University of Central Arkansas recruit had 29 kills, 15 digs, three blocks and two aces in the championship match win over Conway, capping a year in which she led the state in kills with 587, twice as many as anyone else on her team. Harp also led Fayetteville in digs with 274 and amassed 33 aces and 43 blocks. She was named All-Arkansas Preps Player of the Year and Northwest Arkansas Times Player of the Year, among many other accolades.
“Regan Harp was an absolute force on the volleyball court for us this fall and secured her place in Fayetteville history by clinching her fourth consecutive state championship, a feat unmatched in our program’s history,” noted head coach Jessica Phelan. “I could not be prouder of how these kids leaned into the legacy of Fayetteville Volleyball. We graduated 14 seniors last season but, for this team, it was not just about who we lost, but who we are. They were a great team; played with total trust and passion, winning 16-14 in the fifth to secure the fourth title in a row. It was sweet to see them never stop believing in what they could accomplish together.”
4. Twin turbos
Bobbi Petersen has been the head women’s volleyball coach at Northern Iowa continuously since 2001. Petersen has four daughters, two sets of twins. In 2018, Baylee Petersen and Sydney Petersen graduated from Dike-New Hartford High School after distinguished prep careers that included three state titles. Both played for their mother at UNI.
In 2024, Jadyn Petersen and Payton Petersen will graduate from DNH after distinguished prep careers that included three state titles. Each was a First-Team All-State selection multiple times. Payton Petersen, who will attend Louisville, arguably was the most decorated of the four during her high school years. Three times she was named Most Outstanding Player at the state tournament, including last fall, when she helped take the Wolverines to a 50-0 record, capped by a finals sweep of Hinton in which she had 20 kills.
3. Once a Ponn a time
Carla Ponn was second all-time and first among active coaches in career wins in the Virginia High School League when she stepped down, after 18 years as head coach at Hidden Valley, with the Titans 29-1 and four wins from a Class 3 state title. Ponn cited her health as the reason she stepped away.
Hidden Valley, guided by the team’s assistant coaches, managed to win four straight to close out the season with a state title. The Titans were guided by a Ponn, even if it wasn’t their head coach. Caleigh Ponn, the team’s standout junior hitter and daughter of the former head coach, had 24 kills, 12 digs and four aces to propel Hidden Valley to its first title since 2016.
2. Something to Owl about
Between 1997 and 2010, Muncie Burris won a record 14 straight Indiana state titles, 13 under legendary coach Steve Shondell. Shondell resigned from Burris to become head coach at Ball State. Burris one won more state title, under Thanh Harnish, but then nothing for more than a decade, until 2023, when the Owls swept Brownstown Central for the 2A crown. The title was the state-record 23rd for Burris.
1. An admirable Admiral streak
For the past 21 years, Bayside Academy, of Daphne, Alabama, won its last match of the season. The Admirals, coached by Ann Schilling, started this unprecedented streak of state titles in 2A in 2002. They won six at that classification before being elevated to 3A, where they won 10 straight. In 2018, the Alabama High School Athletic Association made Bayside a 4A school. The Admirals won that year and again the next, when they were elevated, due to success, to 5A. Bayside won that classification in 2020 and in 2021, when the AHSAA told the Admirals they were going to 6A. They won that last year! For 21 years, wherever the AHSAA placed Bayside, the Admirals won! Twenty-one years!! That’s crazy!
This year, girls who were not even born when the streak began, were tasked with continuing it. The pressure must have been intense!
Bayside won its way to the 6A semifinals, and found itself facing powerhouse Mountain Brook, a team it eliminated from contention a year ago. The Admirals (46-10) dropped the first set but won the next two. They needed to win just one more to advance and were close in Games 4 and 5, but Mountain Brook got the better of them, 25-23, 15-13, before going on to win the state title the next day over Saraland, behind tournament MVP Hannah Parant, who had 35 assists, 10 kills, 10 digs and two aces.
“They fought, they never, quit, they just battled and I can’t ever get mad when we lose like that or upset because we laid it all on the line and I told them that,” Schilling told veteran volleyball writer Dennis Victory. “I’m just proud of our program and what we’ve been able to accomplish. I mean, 21 in a row over six divisions is pretty dang incredible and it had to end one day and I’ve been saying that and not just this year.”
Schilling, who is still coaching almost six years after a diagnosis of stage IV breast cancer, took to social media to pay tribute to her players.
“So many emotions. I can honestly say without a doubt I am truly blessed. God has placed me at a place that I love to work and coach. He has also given me many great young women to mentor and coach for the past 36 years. The Bayside volleyball community is a TRUE family. There is love all around. We hugged, shed many tears, shared memories and ate our last meal of the season at camp Bayside. We came up short in the match but we didn’t come up short in the game of life. This group of girls fought, battled and showed true grit under some of the most extreme and stressful situations. We have overcome impossible odds. Our program is bigger than any one person. And we honor God in all that we do. We got knocked down but we will get back up. I tell my kids I learned way more in the valley (my cancer setback) than I ever have in my entire life. We will bounce back. We will get up! We are strong! We are Bayside volleyball. Let’s go in ‘24!”
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