'Comeback Kids' of Camdenton volleyball nearly reach Final Four

MICHAEL LOSCH, Lake Sun Sports Editor
Camdenton volleyball players celebrate their win over Lutheran St. Charles in the Class 4 State Tournament on Saturday, October 31, in Hannibal. The Lakers erased a 2-0 deficit and won three straight sets over the Cougars to reach the state quarterfinals.

Camdenton was the team that simply refused to go away on Saturday and nearly made history in the process.

After making a nearly 3-hour trek up to Hannibal to play in the Class 4 State Tournament, the Lakers remained in Hannibal’s gym for about five hours and 10 total sets of volleyball. Facing elimination four different times in two games, Camdenton came back each time and made both their opponents play all five sets to decide it. 

The Lakers took care of business in the Sweet 16, erasing a 2-0 deficit to knock out Lutheran St. Charles by winning three straight sets. Facing a 2-1 deficit in the state quarterfinals against Parkway West, the Lakers fought back and were on the cusp of their first Final Four in school history. However, the Longhorns avoided elimination in the fifth set on game point twice, tying the set back up before securing a 17-15 win in the finale to reach the Final Four and end Camdenton’s season. 

“Just proud of their effort,” Camdenton coach Austin Walker said of her team. “They did not roll over, especially in the first game, and then to come out here and play with some guts and have that drive and desire to get things done- not how we wanted it to end but if you are going to have to go out, going out in five sets in a close match like that is how we would like to go. 

“Disappointing end, but man, there is nothing to walk out of that locker room hanging their heads about.” 

All those sets of volleyball when Camdenton’s day could have ended very quickly.  

The Lakers ran into a Lutheran St. Charles team (12-7-2) that jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead to start the day with serves that looked like line drives that just skimmed over the net, backed up by a formidable attack. Camdenton lost the first set 25-16, dropped the second 25-17 and Walker said her team had one of two choices.

“Our message was simple,” the coach recalled. “You are going to roll over here and cash in or you are going to fight and fight with everything you have because we are not going out like this. It was just the kids- they just started figuring out ways to score and I think we outsmarted them. Everybody just kind of went with the flow of what we needed to do and what was working in the lineup.”

In the third set against Lutheran St. Charles, Camdenton never let the Cougars enjoy more than a 2-point lead and no lead after the Cougars went up 11-10. With the set tied at 14, a 3-0 Laker run gave the team the cushion it needed to secure a 25-20 win and stay alive. Camdenton was up for the challenge and avoided elimination again in the fourth set. Trailing 13-8, the Lakers used an 8-3 run to tie the set back up at 16 and a 4-1 run led to another 25-20 win. 

“We had to keep about a system and make them not run a pass right to the setter, not serve directly to them and make them work to get that set to the outside, put the ball down and get the kill,” Walker said of her team’s adjustments. “I think we just kind of kept them out of their defensive effort and made them go out of system a lot more. They were passing balls on the 10-foot line which was perfect so our block had time to get there. Our message was that you have to slow it down, take some off it and allow our defense a chance to get something behind it.” 

The Lakers left little doubt in the finale, only letting Lutheran St. Charles enjoy a 1-0 lead while using a 6-1 run on their way to a 15-9 set win to reach the state quarterfinals after senior Miranda Hadfield smacked down the game-winning kill that completed the comeback. Walker said it was simply a matter of not fixing anything that was not broken and her team just found a rhythm that the Cougars were unable to respond to.

“Our kids were confident. I think we dipped our confidence in set one and two so after set three when we got that win, our confidence was just flowing and we just meshed a lot better in the last three sets,” she said.  

Senior Sydney Smith led the Laker attack with 15 kills while junior Payton Kincaid added 14, Hadfield finished with 11, senior Jackie White added six and junior Elle Turner finished with four. There were 10 different Lakers who recorded at least one kill, which totaled to 58 after five sets, and senior Olivia Whittle added three service aces while Smith had two and Turner had one for some quick points. Turner finished with 21 assists, Smith had 20 and Whittle contributed four. On the defensive end, Whittle led the way with 19 digs while senior Brooklyn Stidham posted 18, Smith had seven, Turner finished with five and both Kincaid and Hadfield put together four each. Smith also posted two blocks while Kincaid added a block. 

Camdenton was prepared for another battle against Parkway West (11-4), a team out of the St. Louis area who did not begin the season until September 29 due to coronavirus concerns, but gave the Lakers everything they had. 

The Longhorns took the first set storming back to tie the set at 8 after the Lakers initially secured an early 5-2 lead. From there, Parkway West used an 11-3 run to go up by nine points and Camdenton could not close the gap by more than eight points the rest of the way in a 25-15 defeat. Camdenton took care of business in the second set, though, never letting the Longhorns go up by more than a single point while enjoying a lead that grew to as high as eight points. Leading 19-17, the Lakers closed out the set on a 6-0 run to win it 25-17 on a kill from White.

The haymakers in this prize fight continued the next two sets. 

Parkway West regained the advantage in set three and led the whole way, leading by as many as nine points after the Lakers tied the set at 1-1 in the early going. Camdenton nearly closed the gap with an 11-3 run to cut the deficit to 17-16, but could not find a way to get over the hill as the Longhorns closed the door with an 8-2 run to win the set 25-18. Facing elimination once again, the Lakers got off the proverbial ropes in this prize fight and struck back with a 25-18 win in a fourth set where the Longhorns never led by more than two points and Camdenton took the lead for good at 5-4.  

The win set up a fifth and decisive final set with a trip to the Final Four on the line.  

Parkway West built a 7-4 advantage, only to see the Lakers go on a 7-0 run and take an 11-8 lead. With the set tied at 12, Camdenton scored the next two points and needed just one more to make history. The Longhorns were resilient and tied the game at 14, faced elimination again at 15-14, and scored three straight points to knock out the Lakers. Stidham’s attack on the final play sailed towards the back line and landed just out of bounds to end it.

A heartbreaking way to end a season, but Walker said she was actually pleased with how the senior approached the final play. 

“That is aggressive and our message to the kids was that you have to play to win. Think we kind of tipped too much there in the last couple of points when we had a chance and went away from being aggressive so I’m proud of Brooklyn for being aggressive,” the coach stated. “That is a great swing for her getting behind the ball and taking a down ball. Inches make a huge difference and unfortunately that is how it went for us, but proud of her for being aggressive.” 

Smith led Camdenton with 20 kills in the final match of the year, Hadfield added 14, Kincaid had eight and White finished with six. Both Whittle and Turner served two aces and both Smith and Turner provided 19 assists while Whittle contributed eight and Kincaid finished with four. Whittle kept the Lakers fighting to the end with 50 digs on the defensive end while Stidham had 16, Kincaid added 10, both Turner and Smith contributed nine and junior Sarah Holmes finished with six while junior Charlotte Kurtz had four and junior Mya Hulett had three. White provided two blocks. 

“We were smart and in this game we said we don’t necessarily have to be the most physical kids out there, we just had to play smart volleyball and place things where we were,” Walker said. “We came out swinging and tried to power through. Our defense played smart and Olivia made a great adjustment in the second match. They started going back down the line once we made that adjustment.” 

And it was not easy to fend off the Longhorn attack as the Lakers finished with 110 digs over those final five sets to try and stay alive. 

“We knew they were going to their outsides and their outsides were just physical, taking big cuts at the ball. I think they kind of picked on our weaknesses when they would get us sharp and then go line,” Walker pointed out. “They were smart and making the adjustments for their hitters. I think they started picking up some junk we were throwing over that kind of got us when we were there. We could not find a way to push a deep corner and I think they definitely picked up their game and picked up everything we were throwing at them.”

Camdenton finishes the season 26-6-3 and could have very easily been one of the last Class 4 teams left standing in the state. Not a bad ending, considering the Lakers hosted Senior Night in their season opener, unsure if there would be a full season to even reach the state quarterfinals. 

“We say a lot that we are lucky to even be here and lucky we got to districts. We had a great opportunity and were fortunate to been this situation and have all of our kids, too,” Walker said. “That was huge for us when everybody came back when they did and stayed healthy.” 

In the end, only one team gets to be the last one standing and another group of seniors have wrapped up their Laker careers. It is never easy to say goodbye.

“Man, to be where we are at right here, these seniors, you cannot say enough about them. The kids have had volleyballs in their hands forever, they worked in the offseason and practiced and are competitive,” Walker said of the group. “Compare that with our junior class- that is two competitive groups who give each other a go and run for their money every single day in practice. That was huge when we got into big games like that. They love to compete with each other, but when it comes time they just kind of buckle down and do it.

“These kids are just awesome. We are going to miss our seniors and we are hungry,” the coach continued. 

For those coming back, Walker said reaching this level should be all the motivation the program needs moving forward. 

“Those girls in the locker room, those underclassmen, they felt it and tasted it and it is right there,” the coach said. “We promised we are not going to feel like this next year.”