By Taylor Kauffman & Chris Parker
Willard volleyball is a state champion for the first time in 39 years. The Lady Tigers beat Parkway West 3-1 on Friday to claim the program’s first state title since 1981.
“It’s every coach’s dream. It’s something when you get into coaching it seems somewhat unattainable,” Willard head coach Jamalee Hancock said. “It’s the greatest feeling that I finally was able to take a team (to a state title). It’s all on the girls. They made my job this year easy. They were the ones that came in and worked super hard every day, day in and day out. My seniors had the best leadership from day one, and they just all bought into their role and the team concept. Every single day they just brought it.”
Willard jumped all over Parkway West in the first set taking it 25-8. The Longhorns came back to win the second set 20-25 forcing Willard to regroup. The Lady Tigers responded like a champion should with a 25-9 advantage in the second set.
The 2-1 lead put Willard one set away from a state title. Hancock knew it was important for her team to close it down in that fourth set to avoid a deciding fifth set.
“Volleyball is such a game of momentum. It’s easy to kind of lose your confidence. When we took that four or five point lead in the fourth set we really started feeling super confident that we could pull it off,” Hancock said.
Pull it off they did. Willard finished off the fourth set with a 25-18 win to set off the celebration.
Willard senior Payton Van Veen attributed some of this year’s success to the experience gained two years ago when Willard finished fourth overall.
“We were ready and we didn’t like hold back on anything. Coming from 2018 when we were fourth place, I just think we knew what we were doing a little bit more. We were more comfortable,” Van Veen said.
Willard was paced by Van Veen’s 24 kills over the four sets. That was more than 50% of Willard’s total kills in the match.
Van Veen overcame two ACL tears in 2019 just to get to this point. Getting back on the court wasn’t easy for the senior.
“At the beginning of the season I was barely diving on the floor because I thought I was going to do something, but I just kept working. I wanted to put it out there for my team, so I just kept pushing myself so I could show up and do my job for them,” Van Veen said. “We started getting into games and I realized like I need to start doing my job. I can’t be in afraid anymore.”
She helped provide a spark both on the stat sheet and in the huddle that has pushed Willard to the state title.
“You can’t say enough good things about Payton. To watch what she’s been through the last two seasons and to watch her in therapy and just sit and have to sit through club seasons,” Hancock said. “I knew she was capable, but starting the season she was nervous with her knee. What if it happens again? She brought power and that intensity that she brings with her emotion, and she really took the whole team on her back and just helped lead us here. For her to finish her high school season with the state title I could not be happier for her.”
Van Veen was one half of the state’s most feared hitting duo with fellow senior Maddy Bushnell. Bushnell put down 10 kills in the title match. The duo combined for more than 800 kills this year and 1,700 kills in their careers.
“From day one they were a special duo. Every coach I know in the state would love to have them on their team, but what’s greater than their talent is just the type of kids they are. They’ve never been in our gym acting any better than anybody there. Their mentality is how can we serve our team and how can we be the most coachable? They are a high level athletes, high quality character and you put that together and you get a state championship,” Hancock said.
Willard wasn’t just battling other teams this year, but also the pandemic like everyone in this country. The Lady Tigers are well aware of how easily even the chance of playing this season could have been taken away, as some of them and many of their classmates lost their spring seasons to the pandemic.
“It (the pandemic) put a whole new level of stress on us all year. We were worried week to week if they’d be quarantined out of school or if we’d be quarantined and miss the postseason,” Hancock said. “That was a huge victory just getting on the bus with all eleven of these kids. We were scared this summer that it wouldn’t happen. We’re just so grateful to MSHSAA and everybody in the state that decided to let these kids get out and compete and do what they love to do.”
“At the beginning of the season we didn’t even know if we would have our first week. We had senior night within the first two weeks of the season. We were just so grateful that we even got a season, and we’re so grateful that we even got to come up here. Yes, there are still restrictions, but that’s better than not having anything. I think we’re all just grateful for it,” Van Veen said.
Willard finishes the season with an overall record of 31-3-1. The Lady Tigers will graduate five seniors from this roster including: Van Veen, Bushnell, Taylor Crighton, Sara Lawson and Kelsey Kirkland.