By Rubin E. Grant
Coming into the 2020 season, Hoover volleyball coach Chris Camper knew he had a team capable of winning the first state championship in school history, but not even he imagined just how dominant the Bucs would be.
“There was no doubt in my mind that this was the most athletic team to ever take the court in the state,” Camper said. “But in the nine years I’ve been here, it was also the team with the best ball control, fundamentally sound and physically imposing with three players 6-foot-2 or better.”
The Bucs lost their first match of the season 3-2 to perennial powerhouse McGill-Toolen Catholic, but they didn’t lose again, reeling off 50 consecutive victories to claim the Class 7A state championship.
Hoover swept Baker (quarterfinals), Thompson (semifinals) and Spain Park (final) in the 50th AHSAA Volleyball Championships two weeks ago at the Birmingham Crossplex and Bill Harris Arena.
The Bucs (50-1) defeated Spain Park 25-15, 25-17, 25-23 in the championship match.
“I think our athletic dominance was unmatched,” Camper said. “But even when we were overwhelming teams, every single match they just played the next point. You never knew whether we were down three or four points or ahead three or four points. They just kept playing, focusing on point after point.”
Hoover’s Rya McKinnon won the MVP award, finishing with 21 kills and 11 digs in the final. Teammate Gabrielle Essix, a senior and Florida commit, added 17 kills. Aly Durban had 47 assists, while Sydney Melton added 11 digs and Eva Guenster had 10 digs.
Spain Park junior Audrey Rothman, a Florida State commit, led the Jaguars (27-11) with 14 kills and eight assists. Lilly Johnson had 13 assists, and Katelyn Walsh added 17 digs.
“I feel like all of our hard work paid off,” McKinnon said.
Essix and Durban joined McKinnon on the Class 7A all-tournament team. Rothman, Walsh and Emily Breazeale made the team from Spain Park.
Aiming for the Top
“Our end goal was always the state championship,” Essix said. “We all wanted to win for Hoover, for each other and for all the other players who came before us.
“It’s incredible to be the first team at Hoover to do it, and winning it in our last year with coach Camper is amazing. To win our last 50 games is unfathomable.”
Hoover won every tournament it played this season, including the season-opening Juanita Boddie at the Finley Complex, HeffStrong at Spain Park and Margaret Blalock at Homewood. The Bucs closed by winning the area, super regional and state tournaments.
Along the way, Camper won his 700th game and earned his first state title, something he considers a bit of vindication.
“I hope it was not necessary for me to win a state championship as proof of what I’ve been doing, but there is a feeling of vindication of my system,” he said. “I started the program at Spain Park and built it, then I took over a Mountain Brook that was struggling and made it better and then I came here.
“To finally win it is a relief, and there’s a lot of happiness and joy. It’s for everyone who ever put on a Hoover uniform.”
With the state championship secured, Camper hopes the Bucs can claim the national title. In the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association/USA Today Super 25 national rankings, on Oct. 29, Hoover was fourth behind a school in Nebraska and two schools in Texas.
“I don’t know who the best team in the country is, but if there’s a better team than this one I’d like to see it,” Camper said. “I think this team has as much a right for a national championship as any because of our dominance. We lost only seven sets all season and three of those came in our first match.
“I would load this group up and go play anybody in the country.”