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Spring Garden ‘Fights for Ann’, wins area volleyball title

Spring Garden’s Avery Steward sets a ball for her teammates against Cedar Bluff on Tuesday. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

SPRING GARDEN – It’s been a tough few weeks for the Spring Garden community. They lost recent graduate Matthew Christian to brain cancer, and volleyball assistant coach/head softball coach Ann Welsh was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She made her breast cancer announcement to the volleyball team last Thursday and had a successful procedure on Tuesday.

“Our kids have had some things that we’ve all got to learn how to handle,” Spring Garden head volleyball coach Ricky Austin said. “It makes us understand the moment we’re in and to enjoy it daily. It puts things in perspective. I think our girls have done a good job of understanding some of life’s lessons here.

“It ripped our hearts out when we first heard it. She’s family. At the same time, I wanted our girls to understand what she’s having to go through as a female. I wanted them to hear Ann’s story, about how she’s been an athlete all her life. She’s handled success and handled failures and handled disappointments. She sat the team down and talked to them and threw all that in when she talked about her situation. I think our kids need to hear it. You hear it a lot, and we’ve had kids on our team affected by other family members that’s had cancer. I wanted them to see Ann’s bravery. She was so brave standing up and talking to us about it, talking them through the procedure.”

Austin said the last thing Welsh told them was she planned on meeting the team in Birmingham at the state volleyball tournament.

“That’s kind of how she left it with our team,” Austin said. “We’re fighting to get back down there and see Ann down there in Birmingham.”

The Lady Panthers took their first big step forward toward Birmingham on Tuesday evening in the Class 1A, Area 12 tournament. After sweeping Gaylesville 25-5, 25-10, 25-11, the Lady Panthers fought their way back from a set down to Cedar Bluff to earn a 24-26, 25-12, 25-16, 25-11 victory to clinch another area championship.

Spring Garden (36-13) will face the Area 16 runner-up next Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. to begin North Regional play at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville. Cedar Bluff also advances to face the Area 16 winner at 12:45 p.m.

“They absorb Ann’s heartache and they’re kind of wearing it on their shoulders a little bit. I can feel that,” Austin said. “We talked about before the game how Coach Welsh would smile from ear to ear if she sees an area championship trophy. That was kind of a little drive there. I’m very proud of them for being able to do things to their potential and not let outside circumstances affect them. It shows some perseverance and grit and toughness you have to have to get you through life. It’s a tough way to have to learn a life lesson, but there’s lessons to be learned all the way around here. That’s what life is all about is learning. I’m proud of them for being able to step it up.”

But Cedar Bluff made the Lady Panthers earn their latest area title. They jumped out to a 17-8 advantage in the first set of the championship match before Spring Garden attempted to rally. The Lady Panthers managed to surge out in front late at 23-21 before Cedar Bluff proved to have one more run in it. The Lady Tigers outscored Spring Garden 5-1 down the stretch to take a 1-0 lead in the match.

However, that stretch run just seemed to awaken the Lady Panthers.

They cruised to a 21-9 lead in the second set and tied the match at a game apiece, then went on a 5-0 run to begin the third set and win by nine points. It was much the same in the fourth set.

“We’ve been in some tournaments where we’ve gotten into the championship game where we got down and didn’t fight back, but I knew it was in them. I just didn’t know when we were going to see it,” Coach Austin said. “I’m starting to understand my team and who we are. I thought it was there, but you don’t know until you go through battles like that. That was a battle, and I was proud to see that.

“I like this team, but we can’t feel like we’ve accomplished anything. The next two matches, you lose, your season’s over. We don’t want that yet. We want to make it as far as we have the potential to make it.”

Ace Austin led the Lady Panthers with 25 kills, seven assists and an ace. Chloe Rule collected 11 kills and nine blocks. Aubrey Sadler had a pair of kills and a block. Avery Steward added 36 assists. Maggie Jarrett contributed five kills and 13 assists. Layla Ingram had 11 assists and five aces and Helena Ingram had three assists. Raylee Rice finished with a pair of kills.

Ciana Smith and Kindal Grace both delivered 10 kills to lead Cedar Bluff. They both also had nine and seven digs respectively. Smith also had an assist. Caley Bruce earned six kills, five digs and an ace. Lacie Roer came away with five kills. Mattie Payne posted 15 digs and an ace. Graceland Benton managed six kills. Haley Allen added five digs. Rylie Walker finished with 40 assists.

“I told the girls we’re mentally weak and it showed tremendously tonight,” Cedar Bluff coach Lyndsey Barker Mullins said. “I felt like the first set (against Spring Garden) we were ready to play but we got complacent. We thought it was going to come easy. When it didn’t, we didn’t know how to handle that adversity. We just kind of gave up.”

In Spring Garden’s win over Gaylesville, Ace Austin delivered 15 kills, two assists and an ace. Steward added 31 assists and two aces. Rule managed eight kills and three blocks. Rice delivered four kills and two blocks. Layla Ingram came away with seven assists and two aces. Helena Ingram managed four aces and an assist. Maggie Reedy earned three assists. Olivia Law had an ace and an assist. Jarrett posted three kills. Sadler had a kill and an assist. Timi Scoggin finished with an ace.

In their 25-16, 25-14, 25-17 win over Coosa Christian, Grace collected 18 kills, five digs and two aces for Cedar Bluff. Smith added nine kills and five digs. Bruce posted eight kills, three aces and two digs. Walker accumulated 46 assists, five kills and two digs. Benton came away with three kills, three aces and a dig. Payne delivered seven digs, two aces and a kill. Allen had four digs and a kill. Roer finished with a kill and a dig.

“It’s frustrating but I am proud of them,” Mullins said. “I told them in the huddle I don’t want to overshadow the fact we punched our ticket to regionals for the sixth straight year. I don’t want to overlook how well they played against Coosa. I don’t want to overlook how well they played the first set against Spring Garden, but that (loss) kind of overshadows it. When you lay down and don’t play to really want it, it gets overshadowed.”

Cedar Bluff’s Ciana Smith stretches for a ball against Spring Garden on Tuesday. Photo by Shannon Fagan.
The back of Spring Garden hitter Ace Austin’s pink jersey which says “We Fight With Ann” in reference to assistant coach Ann Welsh’s battle with breast cancer. Photo by Shannon Fagan.
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