By Nick Snow
TULSA, Okla. —
They said it couldn’t be done. Too young, they said.
And yet the Stillwater High School girls volleyball team walked off the floor at Booker T. Washington Thursday with tears in their eyes. They had just punched their second straight trip to state.
Sure, it took longer than expected. And at times, it looked like the doubters were right. But that’s one thing about this team — they never quit.
“In the beginning of the season we were down,” Stillwater senior Maggie Ireton said. “We beat ourselves just to be here and have this moment. Now we’re going to state.”
Stillwater defeated Washington 15-8 in the fifth set, capping off a remarkable three-set comeback against the seventh-ranked Hornets in a drama-filled game that left not only players, but most fans speechless.
“I was one of those doubters,” Stillwater coach Jason Webber said. “It was cool to coach solid, fundamental volleyball, work hard at the basics, and give the girls the knowledge and the feedback they needed. It’s very rewarding, but I think the ultimate end to our night was realizing that whether it’s on the volleyball court or in the classroom or out in life, you play like a champion.”
The Lady Pioneers did just that in the fifth set.
Led by Ireton, who tallied three kills an ace and a block in the final set alone, Stillwater knew what was at stake, but never wavered.
“We all knew that we had to fight,” Ireton said. “No one thought it was possible, but we did it. We did the impossible.”
The Lady Pioneers may have walked off the court with a victory, but it looked like it was going to be a short night — and not in a good way for Stillwater.
Despite needing five sets to dispatch of Broken Arrow in the first game of the regional, Washington showed it wasn’t intimidated by the Lady Pioneers.
After trading points through most of the match, a pair of blocks by Sarah Bateman and Kassidy Franks ignited the Hornets for a 4-0 run. Savannah Onley made it interesting late by closing the gap to 24-23 with a kill, but Washington got the last laugh with a 25-23 victory.
Another 4-0 run halfway through the second game gave Washington a 13-7 lead before Stillwater came roaring back with a couple of blocks from Ireton.
But the Lady Pioneers never could complete the comeback, as costly mistakes helped the Hornets take the second game 25-22.
“My concern at the time was not the winning or losing, but the mentality of how we were going about it,” Webber said. “We did not make our serves, thus they were not tough, and when we did get them over they were right to the center line of people. We really had to refocus on the things that got us here.”
Sensing their season slipping away, it was actually a sophomore — not a senior — that got Stillwater rolling.
A pair of aces by Shelby Childers capped off a 9-1 run, and it looked like the Lady Pioneers were going to cruise into a fourth set.
Again, the Hornets just wouldn’t give in. A pair of blocks by Audrey Stromberg helped Washington go on a 6-2 run and force extra points, but in true senior fashion Ireton took over, recording the final kill in a 27-25 victory that kept Stillwater hopes — and season — alive.
“I just felt like we need leaders,” Ireton said. “Every single one of us did our part. ... When I came back in, I knew what I needed to do, and I did it. I just tried to stay calm.”
Fueled by the third-game performance, the Lady Pioneers took it to the Hornets in the fourth game. Led by Ireton and Morgan Wheatley — whose three kills ignited Stillwater’s attack — the Lady Pioneers opened up a 22-15 lead before Ireton finished off the set with three kills of her own.
From there, nothing could stop the Lady Pioneers.
Even when Washington made a run midway through that final game, Stillwater didn’t get rattled. They just focused on the basics — just like they had been doing all year.
“Basically, I kept the message simple and sweet,” Webber said. “We had to stick to the fundamentals. Believe in what got us here. Believe that being mentally tough and following the basics of volleyball will be a great plan.
“They stuck with it. They became more and more aggressive as the night went on with their serving, passing and defensive desire to get the ball up. Then, they got even more aggressive with their hitting.”
Stillwater 3, U.S. Grant 0
Perhaps with their minds already lingering toward the championship match against Washington, Stillwater didn’t play its best match of the season against U.S. Grant in the regional opener.
It didn’t matter.
Even on a somewhat off game, the Lady Pioneers had no trouble taking care of the Lady Generals with ease 25-12, 25-11, 25-11.
“That first game we kind of thought we had it, but we still struggled just because our heads weren’t into it,” Ireton said. “We needed to push more and believe. We showed in the end when we picked it up.”
Showing confidence early, Webber started mostly reserve players, but even they had the hot hand as several kills by Lauren Gattis and Childers helped Stillwater jump out to an 10-4 lead, where they never looked back.
Webber then opted to use the final two games as a chance for his team to get a little practice and warm up for the championship.
“I noticed early on that we were not ready for Booker T.,” Webber said. “It still took us a while to get mentally into the game.”
Three consecutive aces by Sarah Carpenter gave Stillwater a 17-10 lead before Ireton and Katie Ray finished the job with some big kills late.
Childers and Ireton continued to dominate in the third game, with Ireton recording an ace and a pair of kills and Childers getting a huge block late that sealed the match for Stillwater.