By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
SAND ROCK – The old saying what a difference a year makes rings true for this year’s Sand Rock volleyball team.
Expectations were high for the 2022 Lady Wildcats. Head coach Lisa Bates felt she had a team that was a Final Four contender.
After an impressive regular season, Sand Rock opened North Super Regional play in Huntsville against Pleasant Valley, but the Lady Raiders burst Sand Rock’s bubble in five sets, ending their season prematurely at 33-10.
It was a bitter pill for Sand Rock to swallow.
Flash forward to earlier this month. The 2023 Lady Wildcats shook off disappointment. Not only did they redeem themselves from last year’s early exit, but they managed to surpass all other Sand Rock volleyball teams by finishing as Class 2A state runner-up – ironically to the same team that broke their hearts last season.
The Lady Wildcats finished the 2023 season at 49-18 and brought home the volleyball program’s first red map.
“To be able to turn it around this year and to get a little more mentally tough and battle through some things we struggled with last year makes it all better,” Bates said. “It almost makes me forget how heartbroken we were last year at this time.”
On Friday afternoon, that red map was placed in the Sand Rock trophy case. The Lady Wildcats held a special ceremony to commemorate the occasion.
“This is not an every year type of thing. This is something special,” Bates said. “I’m very glad they’re competitive and they’re upset they got beat (in the championship match). That’s what we train them to do. We train them to be competitive and want to win, but now I want them to be a little bit proud of this because it is making history for Sand Rock getting that first red trophy for volleyball.
“Getting to the state championship match is huge. We’ve never done that before. It’s been 22 years of trying to get that far. It’s something that will make this group stand out.”
Another thing that helped made this group stand out was its seven seniors: Outside hitters Katelyn St.Clair and Bethany Davis, middle hitter Zoey Handy, setter Rylin St.Clair, libero Chloe Stephens, right side hitter Allie Stansell, and right side hitter/defensive specialist Amber Day.
“I think it’s special for them because they love it so much and put so much time into it,” Bates said. “I’m proud we can actually get a picture with a smile on our face.”
Plenty of pictures were taken Friday before the red map, along with a team autographed volleyball and a state tournament program, became part of Sand Rock’s history inside the trophy case in the gym lobby. They’ll each serve as a memory for the players, coaches and fans who glance at them from behind the glass from now on.
They’ll also serve as motivation for future Lady Wildcat volleyball teams to take that next step toward a championship, beginning with the 2024 team.
“Eventually we want to get that first place (trophy),” Bates said. “Hopefully these younger girls will work as hard as these seven seniors have worked. It might take us a little bit to rebuild and reload, but they’ve definitely set the precedent for what’s expected.”