St. James Academy (Lenexa, Kan.)
won its fourth straight Kansas state championship in 2011, six of the seven players who spent most of the time on the court that night were seniors.
It was another dominating night for the Thunder as they defeated McPherson 2-0 to cap a 47-1 season. Their lone loss last season was to eventual MaxPreps mythical national champion Papillion-LaVista South (Papillion, Neb.). Though losing 3-2, the Thunder actually outscored the Titans, 109-105.
Many onlookers and Kansas rivals thought — at least hoped — the Thunder's stronghold on Kansas prep volleyball might be nearing an end. They lost nearly all their starting lineup from a year ago and struggled in two of their first three matches this season before losing their fourth. That loss was on Sept. 8. A week later, St. James lost again (2-0). Then on Sept. 22, another 2-0 setback.
At St. James, losing a match each week has been unheard of since the school opened in 2005. But it was official with losses to a pair of Missouri schools and Bishop Miege (Shawnee Mission, Kan.). Entering this season, St. James had lost just eight games in the previous six seasons.
Was this to be the year when they fell from atop Kansas volleyball polls? Was their streak of state championships going to end at four?
With a lineup featuring only one senior, three juniors and two freshmen, many thought the state's spotlight would return to Bishop Miege, one of three Kansas schools to beat St. James dating back to 2008. Either St. James or Bishop Miege has been ranked No. 1 for the last eight years with those honors going to the Thunder from 2008-11. St. James has handed Bishop Miege 10 of its 25 defeats in the last seven seasons.
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Adding to its youth, St. James was moving up from 4A to 5A, a division dominated by Bishop Miege. It was going from being among the largest 4A schools to the smallest in 5A.
Was the Thunder's reign over?
Despite their youthfulness or lack of experience, members of this year's Thunder weren't about to toss in the towel.
Coach Nancy Dorsey said her team is a lot like she was during her playing days. "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog."
Since losing on Sept. 22, the Thunder won 24 of their final 25 matches, losing only to Blue Valley North (Overland Park) on Oct. 16. Following that loss, St. James won all but one game the rest of the season with most by a 2-1 or better margin. Only three opponents reached 20 points in a single game.
Dorsey said the turning point was in mid-October against Lee's Summit when "they blew us out in the first game. We gathered the girls together and said nothing we can do about that game, just move on.
"It was like a light went on and when we made our run, there was nothing they (Lee's Summit) could do about it," said Dorsey, who played at Kansas University. "It (the win against Lee's Summit) was one of the most impressive matches of our season. We had been embarrassed and felt like we were going to show everyone it wasn't going to happen again."
And it didn't.
St. James finished the year as state 5A champion and atop the final Kansas polls. In winning their fifth-straight title, the Thunder sent a very loud message without saying a word: Wait ‘til next year.
At state, St. James won its final 10-straight sets and with freshmen
and Audriana Fitzmorris
leading the way. Gray, a 5-foot-8 setter, dished out 124 assists at the tournament and the 6-4 Fitzmorris recorded 40 kills, 13 solo blocks and nine block assists.
They weren't alone as juniors Audrey Wenski
(20 kills, 11 blocks), Arianna Person
(38 kills, 42 digs) and Brianna Lewis
(48 kills, 22 digs, 20 blocks) quietly said "wait ‘til next year."
Fitzmorris, Person and Gray were named to the All-Tournament Team, but Lewis and senior Emily Tripp
(53 digs) got their share of All-Tournament votes.
"The girls exceeded our expectations," said Dorsey. "We knew they were capable and had the talent, but with such a young team, you don't know what's going to happen in pressure situations."
Tripp was one of three seniors on the team that featured three freshmen, one sophomore and five juniors. In addition to Gray and Fitzmorris, 6-3 McKenna Coatney
is a freshman.
Fitzmorris was the youngest starter for a U.S. Youth National Team that qualified for Thailand's 2013 FIVB Volleyball Girls' Youth World Championship. Of the seniors, only Tripp saw considerable action and led the Thunder in digs with 527.
Youth has been served. Why wait 'til next year?'
"We weren't surprised by what they accomplished, but youth is always a great unknown when coaching," said Dorsey, who has a career record at St. James of 225 wins and 12 losses. "You can coach ‘em up all you want, but at end of the day you can't control a girl's emotion. And they responded magnificently."
Wait ‘til next year when the Thunder return four players who on Monday received All-State honors.
Looking to next season:
- Gray led the team with 1,057 assists and had 257 digs. She was named second-team All-State.
- Fitzmorris, who had a hitting average just under .500 and averaged nearly four kills per game, as well as recording 64 solo blocks on the season. She was honorable mention All-State despite missing more than five weeks with a broken finger.
- Brianna Lewis
, who at 5-11 plays middle or outside hitter, led the team with 405 kills and added 88 blocks and 251 digs. She was named second team All-State.
- Bristol Lewis
, a 5-10 outside hitter, had 199 kills and 64 blocks.
- Person, a 5-8 outside hitter, was named first team All-State and had 280 digs, 52 blocks and 370 kills.
- Audrey Wenski
, a 6-foot middle, had 211 kills and 108 blocks.
And did we mention the 6-3 Coatney?
Not to be forgotten are the Thunder's standout junior varsity, sophomore and freshman teams – who combine to lose about three or four matches per year.
Dorsey said she was looking forward to seeing who comes out for next year's team and is quick to note that "on paper we look very good." But she is cautiously optimistic.
"I've learned through my life experiences you just never know what is going to happen," said Dorsey. "I'm just crazy about volleyball and always think about how we can improve. We came together as a team this year and it'll be fun to see how we build on that."
As they say, "wait ‘til next year." Then again, St. James didn't need to wait 'til next year.