Lovejoy High School, Lucas, Texas
Sometimes the hardest lessons in life are the ones that teach us the most. Senior outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu of Lovejoy learned a tough life lesson last season.
Coach Ryan Mitchell benched Nwanebu during the state finals for what was later revealed to be an academic matter. Nwanebu watched as her teammates won the program’s fourth state championship in a row.
“It was embarrassing for her; she was knocked down a peg and her pride was hurt,” Mitchell says. “[She] and her parents could have responded in different ways to the situation, but they didn’t. It’s made her stronger for later on in life. She came back this year a better competitor and an even better kid.”
Nwanebu indeed took things to another level this season. The 6'4" USC recruit finished the year with 701 kills, 356 digs, 103 blocks, and 35 aces, and helped Lovejoy (48-4) win a Texas Class 4A state title, the program’s fifth in a row.
Her accomplishments this season have earned her the 2012 Mizuno/Volleyball Girls’ High School Player of the Year honor.
Nwanebu, who played her freshman season at Irving (Tex.) MacArthur High School, admits to the difficulty of having to sit out those ultra-important matches at the end of last season.
“It was tough for a long time,” she says. “I could have caused problems, but you are not going to go far doing that. Coach Mitchell taught me an important lesson that I will definitely use in college and beyond. I will use it as a life lesson.”
As such, Nwanebu, also named the Dallas Morning News SportsDay Player of the Year and an AVCA All-American first-team pick, came back to Lovejoy in 2012 with a little extra rocket fuel in the tank. She wanted to win another state title.
“The last game I played for Lovejoy before this season was in the regional finals. I didn’t get to play at state last year,” she explains. “I definitely wanted to play in the state tournament. I needed to show people I could do this and I could push through it. Winning the state title this year meant a lot. We all came together and all told each other how much we meant to one another. We won this together. It feels so awesome.”
Mitchell saw a different player on the court this season.
“She’s that kid that can impact all different facets of the game,” he says. “She’s a huge presence with her block and her attacks. She’s a side-out machine. She’s versatile. She can play all three positions at the net and can play them at a high level. She started playing all-around this season. She took her game to the next level this year. She was that player that wanted to make the plays in the big situations.”
Mitchell noticed even more fire from his senior co-captain in the state finals. Nwanebu finished with 26 kills and 11 digs and was named the MVP of the championship match.
“You could see it in her eyes. ‘Get me the ball,’” he says. “I cannot compliment the kid enough. She made a mistake and got knocked down and then came back even better than before. That’s pretty cool.”
Nwanebu, a member of the Texas Advantage Volleyball club program, is most proud of the way she added to her game on the defensive end.
“My back row play has been my biggest improvement defensively and hitting a back-row attack,” she says. “Being able to play all-around makes me feel like I am a bigger part of the team. It has definitely given me more confidence.”
She also is more than satisfied with how her senior season played out and hopes her leadership skills will leave a lasting impression on the program.
“I want the volleyball program to remember me as a leader,” she says. “Past seniors set the bar high. Hopefully this group has set the bar high for the underclassmen.”
Longtime teammate Mallorie Puckett holds Nwanebu in high regard for the way she conducts herself.
“Ebony is the ultimate teammate,” says Puckett, who has been playing with Nwanebu since she was 13. “She’s always there for you and is very supportive. She has the best attitude of anybody I’ve ever met. She’s very uplifting. She’s amazing.”
Mitchell believes Nwanebu, who can touch 10'6", can make an immediate difference at USC.
“I think she can step in and start in that conference,” he says. “She’ll have to make adjustments like any player, but she is prepared to compete right from the beginning. Ebony is a big-time player.”
Lafayette High School, Wildwood, Missouri
The Lafayette girls’ volleyball team had a perfect season. Emphasis on perfect. The Lancers went 40-0 and did not lose a single set (80-0) on their way to the Missouri Class 4 State Championship.
And a major key in the team’s run to perfection was first-year varsity coach Zach Young.
“His knowledge of the game is absolutely incredible,” Lafayette junior outside hitter Lily Johnson said. “He came off a successful playing career (at Lindenwood). Anybody can see it. He plans out what we need to do. Practices are never monotonous. He has a great demeanor. He’s calm, cool, and collected out there. I don’t know how he does it sometimes. A good deal of the credit goes to him.”
Senior middle Stephanie Campbell noted Young placed a lot of focus on the team concept.
“He inspires us through the emphasis of team chemistry,” she said. “That makes a huge difference. Team chemistry is a huge x-factor in volleyball. You have to have trust in your teammates and Coach Young does a great job working with that.”
Young, a former assistant in the program, took over for Steve Burkard this year. Burkard remained on the volleyball staff. Lafayette also won the state title last year.
“You can’t help but think he felt a little bit of pressure this year,” Johnson said. “It was a challenge and he made the most of it. He put in a lot of work. Going 40-0 in your first season speaks for itself.”
From the start Young had a feeling this year’s team could have another successful run.
“We had 11 returners from the previous years,” he said, noting that was after three starters graduated. “We knew we had a chance. We thought we could be pretty competitive. We play a fairly competitive schedule.”
The significance of not losing a set the entire season still has not sunk in for Young.
“Nobody dreamed that we would go through the season without losing a set,” he said. “I don’t think something like this will hit me for a few years.”
Young noted an assistant coach told him out of the 80 sets only 10 times did an opponent hit the 20-point mark. Only once did a team hit 20 points in both sets (St. Joe’s in the sectional).
As the wins started piling up, Campbell was impressed with how Young kept the team focused on the present.
“He emphasized focusing on one thing at a time and not to pay any attention to the past,” she said. “We didn’t really look back until after the season. We only focused on one thing at a time and good things came from that.”
Senior middle/outside Maddie Jones added: “He helped us stay focused the entire year and play our best no matter who the opponent was. Before games in the huddle he would tell us to close our eyes and take a deep breath and re-focus and concentrate on ourselves for a little bit. That helped tremendously. We were relaxed and prepared in games. He was a major part of what we did this year.”
Team MVP and Auburn recruit Campbell, a Mizuno/Volleyball First Team All-American pick, set the pace for Lafayette along with junior setter Maggie Scott, who committed to Oregon, and Johnson, who Young noted was a huge contributor in both the front and back rows. Lafayette is believed to be the first girls’ volleyball team in state history to go an entire season without losing a set.
“My role was to stay out of their way,” Young laughed. “I’ve been in the program five years. I had coached a lot of these kids at the JV level. I also have awesome assistants [in Sue Tillery, Burkard and Kim Aschoff]. Everybody set goals and kept pushing each other. The biggest thing was the girls truly got along on and off the court. They had the talent and they were unselfish. This was a dream team to coach.”
Check that. A dream team with a perfect coach.
Papillion-La Vista South
Papillion-La Vista South’s 2012 journey started with a bang and ended with an even bigger one.
Papio South flexed its Nebraska muscle in the much anticipated Battle on the Plains triangular in September in Omaha against fellow national powers Torrey Pines (Calif.) and Assumption (Louisville, Ky.). Papio South beat Torrey Pines but then lost to Assumption.
The loss to Assumption turned out to be the lone blemish on the Titans’ record this year. Papio South capped an amazing run by winning their third straight Nebraska Class A state title. The Titans, owners of a 123-1 record over that three year span, are the recipients of this year’s Mizuno/Volleyball Girls’ High School Team of the Year honor.
“We had seven seniors on the team this year and this was our last chance to win a state championship,” Papio South senior right side Olivia Schonewise said. “There was a lot at stake this year.”
Papio South went 41-0 in each of the previous two seasons and talk centered on the team chasing the all-time Nebraska high school girls record for most wins in a row (Columbus Scotus holds the state record at 113). Papio South’s streak reached 97 in a row before the team lost to Assumption. The team has won 109 straight matches against Nebraska Class A competition. Marian (Omaha) was the last Class A team to beat Papio South (in the 2009 state title match).
“A lot of girls were comfortable playing in big situations,” said Schonewise. “We get very excited for big events. There were some people thinking we were not going to win and that we would be the senior class that kind of dropped the ball. Everybody rose to the challenge and did really well.”
Schonewise, who will continue her playing career at Albany this fall, said a strong showing at the triangular was of the utmost importance.
“A lot of people in school and in town put in a ton of work on that,” she said. “We were able to play it in our home state. It was important we did well. We wanted to uphold the reputation of our state. The support for volleyball in Nebraska is fantastic.”
Schonewise was one of many weapons the Titans had on display this season. Twin sisters and University of Nebraska recruits Amber and Kadie Rolfzen were again stellar en route to earning Mizuno/Volleyball First Team All-American honors. Setter Kelly Hunter, who will join the twins in Lincoln, was named to the second team. Hunter and Schonewise’s mothers also played at Nebraska.
“This year we all tried to have the best time and the most fun we possibly could and obviously win,” Hunter said. “We were all in this 100 percent and that pushed us even further as a team.”
Winning one state championship in any sport is a big deal. Winning three in a row is an accomplishment not lost on Hunter.
“A lot of people don’t get this chance,” she said. “We’re not taking this for granted. This is one [of] the greatest things all of us have done in our lives so far. We’re grateful for the opportunity and we’re grateful to have so many people behind us. We’re getting rings and it will say three-peat on them.”
The third state title was of significance for Titans coach Gwen Egbert, who started the program when the school opened nine years ago. This year’s win in the title match against Marian gave Egbert 700 career wins. She also won three straight state titles from 2000-2002 at Papillion-La Vista before moving to South in 2003.
“Our goal every day was to get better and leave each day with no regrets,” said Egbert, the 2011 Mizuno/Volleyball Girls’ High School Coach of the Year. “This group has accomplished a ton. They helped put our school on the map. They are leaving a big legacy.”
Originally published in February 2013