RALEIGH – As Marvin Ridge volleyball coach Brook Hammers walked down the long hallway at Reynolds Coliseum on N.C. State’s campus moments after her team had knocked off unbeaten D.H. Conley in straight sets to claim the program’s first-ever title, senior Lexi Thomas ran up to Hammers from behind, put her arm on her shoulder and said, ‘Coach, we did it!’
Hammers said that’s one of the many lasting memories she’ll have from her team’s Nov. 3, 3-0 win over D.H. Conley, who came in 26-0 and 13th-ranked in Maxpreps.com’s Xcellent 25 national rankings.
Hammers had reached the sport’s pinnacle mostly with a class of seniors she’s known and mentored since they were 11 or 12 years old.
But Hammers also recalls earlier in the season, following one of just Marvin Ridge’s two losses, how unhappy she was at the uninspired play and how nonchalantly her team had played in the loss.
It was Sept. 8 and the Mavs had just fallen 2-1 to North Raleigh Christian, a team Marvin Ridge had a straight-set win over earlier in the year. But this time Marvin Ridge fell, 2-1. The match was close – 25-27, 29-27, 10-15 — but Hammers could sense something wasn’t right.
“There were a lot of things I wanted to go over, so we had a team meeting after that match,” she said. “One of the things I felt was that we were at status quo. We were just playing volleyball to play volleyball. We needed to figure out what we were here to do and what we wanted to accomplish.
“My right side (hitter), Olivia Headrick, spoke up and said, ‘I feel like we’ve plateaued. I think we’re accepting where we’re at and we really need to focus on getting better.’ Ever since that meeting it’s been a totally different team.”
One big change that came was moving Headrick to the right side, freeing up sophomore Mac Russ to roam the middle.
Russ is an interesting story. Her family moved from the Monument, Colo. area four months ago with her not knowing anyone in this area.
Last year as a freshman, she led Palmer Ridge High School, a team that went 24-3, in kills and blocks. Now as a sophomore newcomer to the school, she was coming to an established team of 10 seniors, many of whom had played together most of their lives.
“Mac has been wonderful,” Hammers said. “Saturday’s game she was light’s out. She had no hitting errors and she was ready to bang. Her transition coming from Colorado, her length and how she’s been able to come in and create relationships and friendships with these girls has been a big part of it. And the most important thing is trust. She had to trust that she’d get the ball. (Setter Adriana Jordan) has been setting all of these girls for years and Mac for only three months. For them to come together the way they did was unbelievable.”
Russ, who was second to Thomas on the Mavs this season, said it’s been fun for her, too.
“This whole journey has been insane,” she said following Marvin Ridge’s 3-0 win over West Henderson in the regional finals. “To see where we’ve come from four months ago and what we went through to prepare for this. To see it all payoff is incredible. I think it’s our energy. We have a great connection, we work with our team, we’re positive and we’re positive with ourselves. We trust our coaches and we have had really high hopes.”
As the girls got ready to play unbeaten and nationally ranked D.H. Conley, Hammers was surprised at their demeanor. Usually pregame the girls are laughing, joking and playing music to pump themselves up, but this didn’t look like the normal pregame to Hammers.
“It was the calmest I’ve ever seen them,” she said. “They were in little groups, and they were talking some, but I asked if they wanted to get pumped up and turn up the radio and they said they were good. That made me nervous because they were so calm.”
The Mavs came out a little rigid and unsure inside the raucous coliseum and were tied at 16 midway through the first set. Then, a 6-2 spurt led to a 25-22 opening-set win.
“I think they were tight, but we started playing well when they finally relaxed,” she said. “We were nervous and giving away points we probably wouldn’t usually, but this is the biggest stage of their high school career. With the atmosphere and D.H. Conley’s huge crowd was electric and we had a really good crowd and support there, too. Once we calmed down we put some serves down and Maggie (Young) and Mac had some big points.”
The Mavs blitzed through the second set 25-8 and took their first state title in program history with a 25-16 win in the clincher.
Russ was named MVP after posting 11 kills.
Thomas had 11 kills and 11 digs, Headrick five assists, Madi Graveline 13 digs and Jordan added 39 assists. Thomas, Graveline and Jordan started as freshmen, but all four seniors will go out together on top.
Along the way they won a state record 44 games and didn’t lose a single set since the Raleigh Christian game, a span of 18 matches and 54 straight sets including the playoffs.