Coaching Arsenal 18 Gold, this season, has been an amazingly epic journey. I have been coaching for over two decades now and this has been easily one of the most memorable. We have had plenty of trials and tribulations, but standing on the top of the podium with a gold medal around your neck at the Girls Junior National Championships is just a small portion of the story.
First, talking all of the players to come and play for a brand new club took some convincing. I had already coached three of the players in the past. (Abby, Emily, and Haley) None of the other players knew much about me or my coaching style, but through plenty of long conversations with parents and players they chose to make Arsenal their home for this season. I will forever be thankful for each and everyone of their commitments. I know it wasn't an easy decision for many of them, but I am grateful for everyone.
Many questions swirled around the NTR about how good this team could be. There were plenty of doubters, yet slowly the team started to come together and believe what we were capable of. We were dealt an early season setback when Destiny went down with a knee injury. She missed our first tournament entirely and we didn't finish where we thought we could. The team kept plugging along and we got Destiny back for the Tour of Texas qualifier. We proved for the first time how competitive we could be going undefeated, without dropping a set, for the weekend. Things were looking up as we competed well throughout our next tournament, going undefeated again.
Our first qualifier was the AVC in Dallas. We had played great on the first two days, taking over the number one overall seed going into the final day. Our streak of good play ended at 8:00 am on the final day. We played our first bad match in a long time and lost to start off the pool. The team pulled itself back together and won the next match, against the eventual champs. This put us in the dreaded one set tie breaker. We fought tough and almost pulled off an amazing comeback but it wasn't meant to be. Our bid to nationals was in our grasps and it slipped away.
Our next qualifying opportunity came in Houston. It was really an up and down weekend for us. Nearly knocking off TAV on day one and having to play in easily the toughest pool on day two. We came up short in the match we had to win and was on the outside looking in when bids were handed out again. Regionals followed the Tour Finals. It was our third weekend in a row to play but we dealt good about our chances. We rolled through day one and our first match of day two. A really good Dallas Premier team was standing in our way, in the next match. The winner would be guaranteed a bid to nationals. Early in the first set we were dealt a heavy blow when one of our top hitters, Emily, went down with a severe ankle injury. The rest of the girls fought their way the rest of the match, playing in lineups we have never used before, but fell short in three sets. Once again, a bid was ours to be had, and we couldn't quite pull through.
Our last shot at a bid, in a qualifier came the following week in Indianapolis. Our fourth weekend in a row and we didn't know if Emily would be able to play at all. Luckily we got Emily back, even if it wasn't full speed. We were trying some new lineups out and using some people in spots we have never them in before. We lost a match to a team we had easily handled earlier in the year. That set us up against Sky High who came into the tournament already with two qualifier wins and a top 5 national ranking. We played one of our best matches of the year and won! I was so proud of the girls after that match but we couldn't rest because we lost that earlier match we had to play the one set playoff to decide who moves on to day two. We started off bad and could never recover. Despite going 8-1 over the weekend. We lost the one match we couldn't and finished in the bottom half. We lost out on our last chance to qualify at a tournament and our only hope was in the at large committees hands.
We held out some small hope for an at large open bid. We had several wins against the field and two very high finishes, however our low finish in Indy didn't sit well with the committee and they chose five other teams over us. However, the silver lining in it all is one of the other teams that was chosen by the committee for an open bid was a NTR team which meant we would get an American bid to Nationals. The team was upset at first about not getting an open bid but after some convincing by the staff that they had a whole lot to still play for we united to try to do our best going forward.
During all of our injuries and lineup switches a blessing that no one saw coming emerged. In Indy, I came up with the idea to move Devyn to the outside position. She had been a middle her whole career but showed us all how great she was on the last two days of that tournament. The staff decided to make the move permanent going into nationals. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only did she show she was capable, she showed she was a star. We knew while we were preparing for nationals that we were going to be missing some players for partial parts of the tournament. We had one that was going to enroll for classes in college and two that had their proms on Saturday evening.
Truly running lineups we had never ran before we made it through days one and two. We blocked our setter out of middle. We asked players like Hallie, and Kaitlynn to play middle as well. Our last match of pool play and our challenge match were literally played without a middle blocker on the floor. We only had one middle for our quarterfinal match on Sunday. The team responded amazingly and won a hard fought three set match. In the semi and final we finally had our whole team back. We swept both teams at full strength and were crowned National Champs! Abby was named MVP. Haley and Devyn were named all tournament, but every player played a huge role all weekend. No role was more important than the other. They all stepped up when needed no matter what was asked of them. It was a true team victory. It was all theirs. They earned it.
I told the team all year that we never talk about winning or championships, but about doing things the right way and playing for each other. The winning and championships will take care of themselves if you do those things. This team had plenty of opportunities to quit and give up but they never did! We didn't even know if we were going to get a bid at all after all of our qualifying chances and they turned it into a championship but more importantly they learned how to play through the greatest of adversity and how every person on the team plays a vital role no matter how much playing time they get. You never know when they are going to be needed. We needed each and everyone of them. I am a blessed coach to have been able to be a small part of this team.
Abby, Sam, Haley, Emily, Devyn, Destiny, Hallie, Kaitlynn, Jaycie, Macy, Hannah, and Mary. I wish all of you the best in everything that you do. You will always be in the Arsenal family and your legacy will always hold a special place in my heart. Lunden and Ellen, thanks for putting up with my weirdness. I know it's not easy.
Arsenal family please keep up with all of our players going to the next level! Abby Gargus (Houston Baptist), Emily Hollowell (Illinois), Destiny Daniel (Yale), Haley Killinger (Texas Tech), Devyn Wheeler (North Florida), Hannah Hasko (NCTC), Sam Snyder (Ouachita Baptist), Jaycie Fuller (Arkansas Ft. Smith).