ELLISVILLE – It’s been five long years of hard work, dedication and no small amount of disappointment for the seniors on the East Central volleyball team.
But Monday night, all of that hard work and dedication paid off in a big way as the Hornets swept past South Jones 3-0 (25-20, 25-23, 25-15) in the Class 5A South State Championships at the South Jones gym.
East Central (24-14) advanced to the 5A State Championship for the first time in school history, and will battle Lafayette for the state title at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Gillom Athletic Performance Center on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford. The Braves finished their season 16-5.
“I came into a program that was established, and a set of girls who have been working toward this their whole careers,” said East Central head coach Kayla Everett.
“We had several talented seniors who had seen it, starting varsity as eighth-graders. They’ve had a little taste of success the past couple of years, they wanted more, and they got it done.”
There were plenty of seniors – and a few underclassmen as well – who starred for the Hornets, but the key player on the court was senior setter Leann Lambert, who was in the middle of everything in all three games.
“We came in with a good mindset, because we knew it was going to be a battle to the end,” said Lambert. “It came down to who was going to want it more, that we needed to do everything right and limit our errors.”
Whether it was setting up teammates, dominating at the net or serving, Lambert was there for East Central. She finished with 11 kills, 4 offensive assists, 19 defensive assists and 13 digs.
“Leann is such a dual threat, anywhere you put her,” said Everett. “She’s a lights-out setter, and she scored a ton of points for us tonight. She really picked us up when we needed it.”
Ironically, Everett came to the Hornet program after previously serving as head coach at South Jones. She left the Braves to move to the Gulf Coast after marrying, and took on the EC job earlier this summer after a year coaching in Alabama.
She came late to the EC program and it took a little time for players and coach to gel. Once they did, however, the results were obvious on the floor.
“I came in late, and everybody else had probably a three-month head start on us by the time I got there,” said Everett.
“But the girls were really chomping at the bit. I told them that we had a lot of ground to make up if they wanted to be here. They put in the work and they made it happen.”
The Hornets led almost the entire game, and always had answer whenever South Jones closed in.
After grabbing a quick 1-0 lead off a winner on the Braves’ initial serve of the night, Lambert got EC going with a service winner. Senior Claire Cook and freshman Kaitlyn Hooks had kills on back-to-back plays to give the Hornets a 6-2 lead and the early momentum.
South Jones rallied to tie it up at 7-7 and 9-9, before Lambert had kills on consecutive serves to key a 3-0 surge. However, a series of unforced errors helped the Braves on a 5-1 run for a 15-13 lead.
But, once again, Lambert came up big for EC, getting a winner at the net on a soft shot to regain the serve, then forced an error in the defensive end to tie it up again.
The Braves never did figure out when Lambert was going to go with a power move at the net when she was going to use a soft touch, like a drop shot.
“I do that on purpose, to throw the other team off, so they don’t know what we’re doing , what to expect,” said Lambert. “We’re pumped about going to State. We’ve been preparing for this all season.
“We came into the season not knowing if we were going to have a coach or not, and now here we are going to State.”
The two teams traded the serve on three consecutive plays, with the Braves keeping their one-point advantage at 16-15 and 17-16.
But a service error on a long ball tied it at 17-17 and that’s when senior Morgan Mears made her presence felt, with a booming kill to put East Central ahead for good, and they would never trail again.
“First of all, I want to thank God for the opportunity to be here right now,” said Mears. “We busted our butts all season. Most teams take weekends off. No, we were here Friday, Saturday and Sunday, sometimes until 9 o’clock at night, working in the gym.
“This is what we prepared for; this is what we live for. I am so proud to be a part of this team. I love it.”
Sophomore Mady Krebs had a kill from the left side of the net, then Cook hit a winner that the Braves were unable to defend, as EC finished the first game on a 8-3 run. Lambert closed out the game with back-to-back kills for the 25-20 win.
The second game was all East Central until near the end, when the Braves rallied from an early nine-point deficit.
Mears had five of her team-high 13 kills in the second game, and Lambert had another big effort, getting the ball back with a kill at 9-6, then served six straight winners to build a 15-6 lead that would prove insurmountable.
“We knew they were going to come back stronger in the second set, as any team would,” said Mears. “You just have to keep your foot on the gas pedal, and that’s what we preach. Keep your foot on the gas and do not stop.”
Junior Saylor Hammond had two splendid kills at the net for South Jones as the Braves outscored the Hornets 7-2 down the stretch, trimming the margin to 24-23 with another strong kill from junior Berta Soules.
But Lambert once again closed out the game with a kill to put EC in command 2-0 after the narrow 25-23 victory.
A big part of the Hornets’ success was the play of senior libero Makayla Cooper, whose job was to field opponent’s serves, one she did so well that the Braves did not have a single ace for the game.
“Back in my position, I have to be the most dominant person out there as the libero,” said Cooper. “I just tell myself to block everything out and keep my eyes on the ball the whole time to help everyone else out.
“My thing is defense. I’m supposed to be falling out and going for everything that comes my way. Basically sacrifice my body so we can set up the hitters.”
In all, Cooper finished with 30 service returns to key the East Central defense.
“Our defense played really well tonight,” said Everett. “We knew that whoever we had back there, they were going to have to put the ball on the ground to score on us.”
South Jones tied the third game early at 1-1, 2-2 and 5-5, but Lambert had another kill to ignite another Hornet rally, this one a decisive 5-1 surge that put EC in command for good.
The Braves cut the margin to two points, at 11-9, and three points, at 15-12, but East Central outscore SJ 10-3 the rest of the way to win the game 25-15.
Fittingly, it was Lambert who served out the match, getting the ball back on a winner at 21-15, then firing an ace to key one final surge Hooks and Mears each had a kill, then Hooks closed the match with a soft winner at the net.
“We’ve been so close the last couple of years and come up short,” said Cooper. “Now, it’s our senior season and we finally made it, and it’s the best feeling ever.”
East Central will once again be venturing into hostile territory at Ole Miss, where the Commodores will have a distinct home-court advantage. Lafayette (25-9) also swept its match in the North Half Championship, defeating New Hope 3-0 (25-16, 25-20, 25-17).
“This feels amazing,” said Mears. “It’s the first time in history, and we’re fixing to roll with it, baby, let’s go.”