BIRMINGHAM – When Spring Garden volleyball coach Ricky Austin first saw Orange Beach play, he didn’t think the Lady Panthers had a chance to win their Class 2A Elite 8 match at the Birmingham Crossplex on Tuesday.
But the more he watched film of the Makos, the more confidence he began to get.
The Lady Panthers came out confident against the South Super Regional champions. They took a 2-0 lead, winning 25-15 and 25-22 before the Makos finally put began to get in a rhythm.
Orange Beach took the next three sets 25-10, 25-22 and 15-6 to eliminate the Lady Panthers, who finish the season at 38-15.
“I really thought we had a shot,” Austin said. “I thought if we had a shot it would be very similar to what it was. Our players showed up and believed they could win. I could tell when they woke up this morning they had that look in their eye. It was something they really wanted.
“Orange Beach is a great team. They’ve got girls who specialize in volleyball and play year around. They have a lot of weapons. They’re very clean, but I’m very, very proud of our bunch. We struggled a couple of times getting a good pass up that could really be effective, but we kind of shook that off. I was very proud of how we shook that off after game three. We really rebounded in game four. I’m so proud of how they come out and played in game four.”
But it was how the fifth set started that doomed the Lady Panthers.
Orange Beach (29-16) jumped out to a 4-0 lead before Spring Garden made an attempt to rally. The Lady Panthers trailed 9-5, but the Makos went on a 6-1 run the rest of the way for the final.
“Usually when we win the toss (in the fifth set), we choose receive. We’ve done it all year long,” Austin said. “Earlier in the year, game five in a tournament, I chose receive again on the coin toss, and we came out and got behind. I had a bad feeling when I made that call then. I said if I get in that situation again, I’m going to call serve.
“I felt today was the perfect time to call serve. We won the coin toss for the fifth game and we had Abbey (Steward) to call serve first. I thought if we could just get hot serving, get them down 2-0, 3-0. It seemed like when we were up three or four on them, they had a hard time catching us. I thought this is our chance.
“I didn’t think we had the firepower to be down 3-0 or 4-0. However we did that in the second game. We come from behind late and took one from them, and that was probably the best volleyball we’ve played during that little stretch, some of them their whole career. I didn’t know if we could do that again with it being a short game. We come out and they made a couple of plays hot. I give them credit. They’re the No. 1 team out of the South, but I think that tells you the quality of volleyball we have in the North. We’re the fourth seed and we played the No. 1 that tight.”
Senior middle hitters Suzie Carter and Neely Welsh led the Lady Panthers with 15 kills apiece. Carter also collected five blocks. Welsh added a pair of digs.
Senior setter Steward contributed 35 assists, two aces and a kill. Senior outside hitter Alle Jennings finished with six kills and an ace.
Senior outside hitter Hannah Marsh led the Makos with 32 kills, three digs and two blocks. Sophomore outside hitter Amelia Edgeworth added 23 kills, five aces and a pair of blocks. Sophomore middle blocker Anabelle Avery came away with 13 kills, seven blocks and three aces.
Sophomore setter/right side Ensley Keel collected 63 assists, nine kills and five blocks. Sophomore libero Mary Elizabeth Alford finished with 25 kills and nine assists.
“We just couldn’t quite get over the hump enough against a good team,” Austin said. “I thought when it was 9-4 (in the fifth set), I started to call timeout, but I said ‘If we can get this thing to 9-5, I feel real good about it.’ They hit one (ball) out and made it 9-5, then I thought, ‘All right, here’s our chance.’ We played some pretty good volleyball in that stretch, but they just made a few more plays than we did. They’re a great team.
Austin then reflected on how much volleyball has evolved in the state, and how much his own program has as well.
“Every girl on our team was upset when the (fifth) game was over. All six seniors are hurting. That’s why our program has evolved also because it means a lot to them,” Austin said. “I thought that culture we had in basketball was something they wanted to be a part of and a piece of. Now, our volleyball is getting to where it has that expectation. It has an identity. I didn’t think it had an identity for a while. Our ‘07 team give it an identity, but we kind of lost a little bit of that identity. I feel like we’ve gained a little strong identity back. It’s not me. It’s the girls who play. It’s the girls who played before this group of girls, the seniors before them. They really like this sport. They really want to win. I really try as hard as I can to help them. I wish I was a better volleyball coach.
“It’s kind of the way Spring Garden is. We just take what we’ve got. We polish it and polish it and try to win in the end. We come so close to having a really bright spot today.”