By Rubin E. Grant
Mountain Brook won three consecutive Class 7A state volleyball championships from 2014-2017, but it’s safe to say the Spartans have never had a season like the one they have had this fall.
The Spartans opened the season ranked No. 1 in Class 7A and closed the regular season ranked No. 1. They swept the top three tournaments played in the Birmingham metropolitan area: the Juanita Boddie Tournament at the Finley Center in Hoover, the Heffstrong Tournament at Spain Park and the Margaret Blalock Invitational at Homewood.
For good measure, they won an out-of-state tournament, capturing the Rocky Top Classic in Sevierville, Tennessee.
Last weekend, Mountain Brook won the North Super Regional at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, tying a school record for wins with 56 in process and securing a berth in the 2019 AHSAA Volleyball State Championships.
But for all they have accomplished, the Spartans still haven’t reached their ultimate goal.
“We set a lot of short-team goals and we’ve been checking them off, getting better and gaining more confidence,” Mountain Brook coach Vickie Nichols said. “But we’ve been laser-focused all season on winning the state championship. That’s our end goal.”
The Spartans (56-7) will begin the final stage of their quest for a state title when they face Auburn (38-18) in the first round of the Elite Eight at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Birmingham Crossplex.
The semifinals are scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Crossplex and the final is set for 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Bill Harris Arena.
“We’re really excited,” Nichols said. “I feel like it’s up for grabs. We can win it – I am not saying we will win it, but we’ve been playing really well.
“We played really well in the regional. We really looked smooth. It was fun to watch.”
Because of the No. 1 ranking, the Spartans could be considered the favorites, but Nichols doesn’t see it that way, especially with two-time defending champion McGill-Toolen in the opposite bracket for a potential championship match-up.
“I don’t care who’s the favorite,” Nichols said. “It’s a matter of who shows up and plays the best that day. But I do believe we’ve set ourselves in a good position.”
Mountain Brook and McGill split their two games during the regular season. The Dirty Dozen opened the season with a win at Mountain Brook, but the Spartans gained a measure of revenge in the semifinals of the Blalock Tournament.
The Spartans have an experienced team, led by five seniors: outside hitter Grace Carr; right side hitter Mary Katherine Fowlkes; twins Ann, a setter, and Liz Vandevelde, a libero; and reserve setter Kate Amberson.
Mountain Brook didn’t have any seniors when they were eliminated by McGill in the semifinals in 2018. The Dirty Dozen also ousted the Spartans in the semifinals in 2017.
“The biggest difference from last year to this year is we’re more mature and playing with more confidence,” Nichols said. “Instead of players saying, ‘I think we can or I hope we can,’ they know they can.
“When we beat McGill in the Blalock Tournament, it was not ‘We’ve done it,’ it was just another step in us moving forward.”
Ann Vandevelde believes the Spartans’ demanding schedule will pay dividends in the state tournament.
“We’ve definitely played a lot more matches this season than we have in the past,” said Vandevelde, who was a freshman on Mountain Brook’s 2016 championship team. “To be able to see so many teams has helped us get better.
“I honestly believe our team is very strong and we have a great opportunity. We’ve played every team in the Elite Eight but Enterprise. We are ready to play.”
If the Spartans don’t claim the title, will they consider the season a failure?
“That’s a hard question,” Vandevelde said. “I don’t want to look at the negative. If that is what happens, I’ll be disappointed for sure, but I’ll still be proud of our team ‘cause we have come a long way.”
Nichols said that, of course, the season wouldn’t be a failure, then added that a state championship would be “a great ending to a great season.”