When St. James Academy first opened its doors in the fall of 2005, it’s unlikely that even the school’s most starry-eyed dreamer envisioned capturing a national sports title in a mere six years. But clearly, St. James Academy is not your average school.
“St. James isn’t like any other high school,” says junior libero Sheridan Zarda. “If you were to walk into St. James you would notice almost everyone smiling, laughing, and having a good time. You normally don’t see that in school. St. James is unique.”
A small Catholic school in the obscure Kansas City, Kan., suburb of Lenexa, St. James doesn’t seem like the kind of school you’d expect to storm the heights of volleyball so quickly—especially when you consider that for the first three years of its existence, St. James didn’t even have a senior class.
“When we opened, we started with only a freshman class,” explains Nancy Dorsey, head coach of the St. James girls’ volleyball team. “We didn’t know if we would have enough girls for a team.”
The idea that a fledgling parochial school, starting from scratch with just 115 freshmen, could in a few short years produce a team strong enough to capture the national volleyball crown is almost unthinkable.
“I would never have thought we would achieve this,” says senior outside hitter Morgan Voorhees. “It is so surreal to me.”
And yet it happened—and the writing was on the wall from the very beginning. In their first year, fielding only freshmen, St. James notched a perfect 35-0 record in the 4A Junior Varsity division.
“It was the start of some really great things in our program,” says Dorsey.
The following season Dorsey played her girls in the varsity circuit. Despite their lack of experience, the Thunder scored an impressive 30-10, losing in sub-state to the Eudora High School Cardinals, the eventual state champs.
That experience paid off the following year when St. James racked up a remarkable 45-1 record in the varsity division, reaching the state finals and only stumbling at the final hurdle to the Topeka Hayden Wildcats.
In 2008 the inaugural class of St. James seniors hit the courts, and the results were better than ever: once again scoring 45-1, this time the Thunder won the state championships, finishing out the season ranked fourth in the nation.
In 2009 the Thunder struck twice in the same place, claiming the Kansas state title for the second year straight. And in 2010 they grabbed that most coveted of brass rings, the three-peat, reaching No. 1 in the national rankings.
As if to underscore the significance of the number three, Coach Dorsey gave birth to triplets on May 5. Cooper, Ellen, and Finley Dorsey celebrate their first birthday this May.
“We always said three was our lucky number this year,” says Dorsey, “because we were having three babies and going for the three-peat. The kids loved that. They even put it on their team shirts.”
And as if the three-peat weren’t triumph enough in itself, the Thunder also nabbed the ultimate title, being named national champions by PrepVolleyball.com—the first time a Kansas high school has ever won a national volleyball title.
How did this happen? How did this humble Catholic school from Lenexa, Kansas, starting with only freshmen in a nascent volleyball program, somehow manage to achieve in a few short years what hundreds of more established and experienced schools across the nation have been trying in vain to do for decades?
Senior outside hitter Hannah Forst believes the answer lies in St. James’ exceptionally strong culture of support.
“The amount of caring, support, and love that comes out of this school is amazing. All of the parents are so supportive along with the majority of our school. The attendance at our games is incredible and unlike anything I will ever experience again. [A] unique quality of our school is the amount of kindness and caring that comes from our teachers and coaches. I do not think there is another school out there that has such great mentors as we do at St. James Academy. They actually want you to succeed and are willing to do whatever it takes so that it happens.”
Of course, Forst’s own phenomenal talent also played a key role in the process: a veteran of four of the six winning teams, Forst scored more kills and a higher winning percentage than any girl in St. James history, racking up a long list of awards (see sidebar), including AVCA First Team All-American, making her one of the top 25 players in the country.
And St. James boasts several other great players as well, like Paige Brown, Molly O’Brien, and Morgan Voorhees—not to mention a star-studded roster of alumni, many of whom now play at Division I universities, such as Kelly Kolich and Rachel Gray, both of whom made All-American while playing for St. James.
But while family, community, and star players all played a role in the meteoric rise of St. James, the picture wouldn’t be complete without the driving force behind the team, head coach Nancy Dorsey.
A Catholic high school player herself, Nancy brought her own volleyball experience to bear at St. James: “I had come from a very successful program in Chicago, called Mother McAuley High School, and we had a strong tradition of winning there that I wanted to recreate here. They really empowered young women, well beyond the basic school work and athletics. I was hearing at home, at school and at practice that I could do anything I wanted, if I believed in myself and worked hard; and I spent my life believing that.”
This deeply-ingrained self-belief helped Dorsey capture her own national championship in 1995, her junior year at Mother McAuley. She could hardly have known at the time that her triumph foreshadowed the St. James victory she would one day help bring to pass.
“I wanted the same experience for the girls who played in my program, though I wanted to even build on what we did at my high school, and make it more family oriented. A lot of times in high school, the Varsity gets all the love, and the other teams feel left out. We wanted to try to encourage the other teams as well,” Dorsey said. “The more we can make our program seem like one big family, the better.”
The team name “Thunder” is a reference to a bible verse (Mark 3:17) in which the apostle James and his brother John are called “Sons of Thunder.” Having taken the volleyball world by storm, maybe the St. James girls, in the tradition of their namesake, deserve to be called the “Daughters of Thunder.”
St. James Stars of “Past” and Present
For a Catholic school that has only existed for six years, St. James has produced more than its share of stars. Following is a partial listing of some of the school’s top players and their achievements.
Class of 2009
Kelly Kolich: PrepVolleyball All-American, 4A Player of the year, All-State, All-Metro, now plays Division I volleyball at College of Charleston
Rachel Gray: PrepVolleyball All-American, All-State, now plays for Division I University of Virginia
Nia William:s All-State, went on to play Division I soccer at Missouri State
Class of 2010
Lauren Brown: All-State, All-Metro, went on to play Division I volleyball at
Morgan Tholen: Went on to play Division I volleyball at University of Colorado
Class of 2011
Hanna Forst: 4A Player of the Year, Gatorade Player of the Year, All-Metro, All-State, Evelyn Gates Award (given to best player in Kansas City area), Max Preps All-American, PrepVolleyball All-American, AVCA All-American, all-time school leader in kills and hitting percentage; has signed to play volleyball for Division I South Carolina
Morgan Voorhes: All-State, All-Metro, PrepVolleyball All-American Honorable Mention; has signed to play volleyball at Division II Pittsburgh State
Molly O’Brien: Has signed to play volleyball at Division II University of Nebraska Kearney (majoring in Medicine)
Class of 2012
Paige Brown All-time school leader in assists (having broken her sister Lauren’s record this year); has signed to play at Appalachian State (Division I) with her sister
The (Brief) Timeline of St. James Academy
2005: St. James opens its doors to an inaugural class of 115 freshmen.
The Thunder score a perfect 35-0
2006: With all underclassmen, the Thunder play in the varsity circuit (30-10)
2007: Now equipped with juniors, St. James reaches the state finals (45-1)
2008:Armed with their first seniors, the Thunder win the state championship (45-1)
2009: The Thunder win a second state title
2010: The Dorsey triplets are born, signaling that the time for the three-peat is at hand
The three-peat is achieved as St. James crushes Topeka Hayden 25-15, 25-8
The Thunder reach No. 1 in the national rankings
PrepVolleyball names St. James Academy national champions.
Hannah Forst makes 1st Team All-American
2011: The Dorsey triplets celebrate their first birthday party
Originally published in June 2011