By Rubin E. Grant
When Mountain Brook beat Briarcrest Christian School in the final of the Juanita Boddie Invitational in August at the Hoover Finley Center, Spartans head volleyball coach Vickie Nichols didn’t realize how big a deal it was.
Nichols knew the victory meant the Spartans were champions of the Boddie tournament for the first time in school history, and she knew it came against a quality opponent from Shelby County, Tennessee.
She just didn’t know how good Briarcrest really was, although it was the top seed in the tournament.
“I found out Briarcrest was ranked in the top 25 in the nation for a while,” Nichols said.
The loss was one of only two setbacks Briarcrest suffered during the season, as it went 33-2-1 and won its second consecutive Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Division II-AA volleyball state championship.
The victory against Briarcrest gave Nichols an idea that the 2019 season could be special for the Spartans.
“We beat a solid team,” Nichols said. “That was a big statement win. Moving forward, I knew we could do some things.”
The Spartans certainly did do some things, setting a school-record for wins with a 59-7 record and winning the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 7A state championship for the first time since claiming three consecutive titles from 2014-2016.
“You don’t set out saying you’re going to win 59 matches,” Nichols said. “But as time went on and we kept winning, I said, ‘This is pretty incredible.’”
The Spartans entered the season ranked No. 1 in Class 7A and closed the regular season ranked No. 1. They won the top three tournaments played in the Birmingham metropolitan area: the Boddie, the Heffstrong Tournament at Spain Park and the Margaret Blalock Invitational at Homewood. And for good measure, they won an out-of-state tournament, capturing the Rocky Top Classic in Sevierville, Tennessee.
Mountain Brook also won its area and the North Super Regional at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville.
Slaying at Championships
But the big payoff came in the 49th AHSAA Elite Eight State Volleyball Championships Oct. 30-31 at the Birmingham Crossplex and Bill Harris Arena.
The Spartans, simply put, were incredible, losing only one set in three games while capturing the state title.
“I feel like when we played against better competition, we played at a high level,” senior outside hitter Grace Carr said. “I think our competitiveness and passion came out.”
Mountain Brook opened the tournament with a three-set sweep of Auburn, 25-7, 25-14, 25-14, in the first round. Carr notched 11 kills and 12 digs; Celie Field had eight kills and seven digs; Mary Katherine Fowlkes added eight kills; and Ann Vandevelde had 26 assists and nine digs. Field and Carr also had four aces each.
In the semifinals, the Spartans beat rival Hoover 3-1 (25-21, 21-25, 25-22, 25-11). Ann Vandevelde had 32 assists and nine digs. Fowlkes added 14 kills and Field had 10 kills.
In the championship game, Mountain Brook swept two-time defending champion McGill-Toolen (39-10) in a highly competitive match, winning 25-21, 28-26, 25-23.
While the hitters scored points on both sides, it was the defensive effort that made the final a classic to remember.
Mountain Brook recorded 86 digs, with Liz Vandevelde leading the way with 22. Carr had 19 digs, Evelyn King 18 and Ann Vandevelde 11. Carr also had 14 kills, three assists and one service ace. Fowlkes had 10 kills, Field had eight kills, and Ann Vandevelde had eight kills and 33 assists.
Greer Golden added four kills, four assist blocks and a solo block. Hannah Hitson recorded three kills, and Kate Amberson had four digs.
Carr was named the Most Valuable Player, while Fowlkes and Ann Vandevelde were named All-Tournament.
Mountain Brook and McGill-Toolen had split their two regular-season matchups, but it was the Dirty Dozen who had eliminated the Spartans in the Elite Eight semifinals in 2017 and 2018.
“Beating McGill made the victory that much sweeter,” Fowlkes said. “We played our best match in the championship game and that made it even more rewarding.”
The Spartans had adopted a “refuse to lose” motto throughout the season, and it showed against the Dirty Dozen.
“Once we made it to the final, we put everything we had into that one last game,” Carr said.
With the championship secured, the Spartans erupted in an emotional celebration. Nichols, finishing her third season as head coach, said it was the most emotion she had seen her team display during the course of the season.
“It was exciting to see that they enjoyed the moment,” Nichols said.
“I think we’re all extremely passionate,” Fowlkes said. “We’re so focused and so intense. We don’t win off emotion, but by playing boldly and consistently. A lot of us cried at the end because all our hard work had paid off and we let it show with our emotions.”
Carr said, “For a lot of the seniors, this was their last game, so I think that’s when the emotion came out.”
Throughout the season, seniors Carr, Fowlkes, Amberson and twins Ann and Liz Vandevelde led the Spartans. But make no mistake, this was a team championship.
“It took every single player for us to win it,” Nichols said. “In my first two seasons, I had only one senior, so it helped to have some maturity and leadership. That definitely made a difference.”
Nichols won two state championships as a player at the former Bradshaw High School in Florence, but it was nothing like this title.
“Winning a high school state championship as a coach is a special feeling,” she said.
The Spartans are still coming to grips with being state champions.
“Every single day, we are starting to realize that we actually won,” Carr said. “We worked hard. I’m proud of what we accomplished.”