By Lee Davis
When Mountain Brook volleyball coach Haven O’Quinn talked about her team’s prospects for the 2016 season, she said all the right things, expressing confidence that the Lady Spartans could win their third straight Class 7A state championship.
The experts thought they knew better. After all, Mountain Brook had lost three of the finest players in school history – Sara Carr, Sara Chandler Mitchell and Payton Selman – to graduation, and stars of that caliber aren’t easily replaced.
If O’Quinn had private doubts, she hid them well. “I think we’ll be a contender,” she said shortly before the Lady Spartans’ first match of the season. “There are a lot of teams that will be in contention and I think we’ll be one of them.”
The coach clearly knew what her players could do. And last Thursday, Mountain Brook showed the rest of the state what it could do.
Showing the same poise that had characterized their previous championship teams, the Lady Spartans defeated runner-up Hoover 25-11, 23-25, 25-12, 25-19 to claim the school’s third consecutive state Class 7A championship at the Crossplex in Birmingham on Oct. 27. Mountain Brook is the only team to win the Class 7A title since the classification was invented three years ago.
O’Quinn, who probably felt vindicated by the victory, emphasized the team concept as a reason that the title bid was successful, despite the naysayers.
Lacey Jeffcoat, left, earned all-tournament honors.
“This is a big win for our program because it’s not about one or two players,” she said. “You can’t win in volleyball that way. This team was truly a unit this year. These girls are great and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The Lady Spartans may not have had any superstars, but Emmy Kilgore put on a good impression of one. The senior outside hitter paced Mountain Brook with 15 kills, 13 digs and three blocks to claim tournament Most Valuable Player honors.
“Winning this title is the best feeling in the world because we worked so hard,” Kilgore said. “As seniors, we had to step up and become leaders. To win the state championship again in the last high school volleyball game we ever played is so incredible.”
Senior Caroline Davies had 10 kills and eight blocks for the winning cause. Ellie Ritter had nine kills and four blocks. Lacey Jeffcoat sparked the Lady Spartan defense with 25 digs. Davies and Ritter join Kilgore as the team’s three seniors. Libby Grace Gann had 40 assists and 10 digs.
Mountain Brook finished the season with a 44-8 record against what was arguably the toughest schedule in Alabama. “We probably played against a top 10 team virtually every night,” said O’Quinn. “I don’t know who would have had a tougher schedule.”
Kyra Hunter had 13 kills for Hoover. Olivia Portera had 14 digs, and Nora Webster contributed eight kills. Lady Buc coach Chris Camper was gracious in defeat.
“Congratulations to Mountain Brook, it was just that kind of day,” he said. “When we’re up we can be among the best in Alabama, but when we’re down, we’re beatable.”
Hoover ended the season with a 39-15 worksheet.
Jeffcoat, Davies, Hunter and Webster also earned all-tournament honors.
The key turning point in the Lady Spartans’ championship run probably came in the third set, with the game tied at one set apiece. Mountain Brook moved to an 18-8 advantage and went to take a 25-12 win to regain the momentum.
Mountain Brook reached the finals with a sweep of top-ranked McGill-Toolen of Mobile, dominating the Lady Yellow Jackets 27-25, 25-23, 25-16.
The Lady Spartans’ impressive run of titles is directly related to the growth spurt of community interest in volleyball since O’Quinn took over the program five years ago.
“I would work at summer volleyball camps and we’d have maybe 30 girls,” said Mitchell, now a student at the University of Virginia. “Now they have more than 70. I’d like to think the success we’ve had has led to that increase.”
Whether the winning led to the interest or the interest led to the winning is an open question, but there’s no doubt that Mountain Brook has established itself as one of the preeminent volleyball programs in Alabama.
And Haven O’Quinn knew it all along.