The six Skyhawks turned toward one another on their side of the floor and sprinted into each other's arms as their bench spilled onto the Liberty High School hardwood and their student section roared at full throat.
Central Catholic looked across the net, stunned, stupefied, surprisingly and swept.
The best Southridge volleyball team in school history — the one that beat Jesuit twice, that won the program's first Metro League title ever — made the Class 6A state championship match look like a beach volleyball pick-up game on some summer weekend.
The Skyhawks were composed and supremely focused, comfortable, yet on a competitive edge, sharp, but still playful with one another, dancing and singing as Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" blasted over the public address system during a stoppage in play.
Before a capacity crowd anticipating a five-set grudge match between Southridge and Central Catholic, the No. 1 Skyhawks swooped in on the No. 2 Rams from the start and didn't relent, winning its first-ever state crown 25-13, 25-17, 26-14 on Saturday. If any Skyhawk skeptics remained, despite winning 29 games and going undefeated in Metro during the regular season, Southridge sent them an indelible reminder of who the best team in the land is.
"It helps prove that we were supposed to be here, that what happened this season wasn't a fluke," Southridge junior setter Lindsey Lambert said. "Ever since my freshman year everyone has called us 'the young team' and they expected us to do all of these things in the future. Now that we're here with our eight seniors, it's an amazing feeling to know that people had faith in us from the beginning and that we had faith in ourselves from the beginning. We knew that we were going to do great things and a state championship was one of them."
State championships aren't supposed to be this hassle-free. State tournaments are supposed to test a team's mettle and make them earn the crown through gut check trials that push a program to the brink. Even the vaunted Jesuit squads that went a combined 63-0 in 2014-15 lost a set in the state championship match. Yet, Southridge didn't lose a single set all tournament-long, playing at its pinnacle at the perfect time over the two-day trial. Transfers like Chloe Brown aren't supposed to fit so seamlessly into a starting lineup filled with returning all-league studs. Young players such as Cameron Brink can't possibly improve so exponentially in just three months as the angular sophomore did this year. Basketball players like Brink and Natalie Hoff shouldn't be so good on both sides of the net, right? Teams are supposed to go from the second round of the playoffs one year to the state championship mountaintop the next.
Yet, Southridge was transcendent squad that truly broke the mold. The Skyhawks' chemistry was unshakeable and their athletes were predominant. It was an egoless group that brought Brown over the summer from Westside Christian and eventually made her a captain. She wove her transcendent talents into the team's fabric without stepping on anybody's toes or proverbially shoving teammates out of the way to get her touches.
"She's the best teammate out there," Brink said of Brown. "She'll lift you up. She's always talking on the floor. She'll put the ball away when you need her to. She was an amazing addition for us."
Southridge, for all its team-wide worries and slight trepidation to begin the game, came out of the gate ablaze. The Skyhawks never led by less than six points in the first set. Brink made a sick right-handed hanging-in-the-air block, and the Rams committed two unforced errors as Southridge led 17-10. And Brown laced a blowback kill that bounced off a Ram defender's readied arms into the standing Central student section. Southridge led by as much as 13 in the first set trouncing.
"We tried to make it seem like the pressure wasn't on us," Lambert said. "We tried to play our game."
"Once we got used to the atmosphere, it was pretty electric," Brink said. "We calmed down, got into a groove and went from there."
Brown, who could very well pull off winning 3A and 6A Player of the Year honors in back-to-back seasons, put on a show in the second set, smacking six kills over the Ram defense as Southridge surged out to a 20-13 lead. And Brink was stirring, floating in the air, using her long arms and superseding hops to kill sets that nobody else can get to.
"They made me look really good tonight," Lambert said with a smile. "They were putting balls down that I thought weren't very good sets and then the next thing I knew the point was over. Sometimes I don't even cheer because my mouth is wide open and I'm like 'How did you just do that? I wish I could do that.' They did amazing, like always, and so did our passers, so I could set up our hitters."
Central never got closer than eight points in the second set as the Rams repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with self-inflicted errors while setting up Southridge's clean-up hitters for easy points.
"Everybody was really excited to go out and play and that really showed," Brown said. "Cameron was on fire. Lindsey was setting everybody up. Teddy (Batinkova) had a huge game. Julia (Basauri) was digging balls out of the lights."
Brown finished the match with a team-high 18 kills, 11 digs, two blocks and two aces. Brink added nine kills, five blocks and infused the court with her passion and affinity for the big moment.
"I wanted to bring as much energy as possible," Brink said. "I wanted to talk as much as I could on the court. You can get 'up' higher than the other team. You can have a better attitude and better energy. That's the one thing you can control."
Lambert, Basauri (15 digs), Avery Eaves and Cara McClean (7 digs) were all great on defense canvassing the floor, digging out kills and deactivating Central's offense with quick hands and sage positioning. Their ability to dig the ball up and get it to Lambert who funneled the pill to Southridge's big hitters was paramount all night. And, was the case all year, Lambert was the Skyhawks' straw stirring the drink with 32 assists.
"I don't think we let one ball hit the floor without somebody going for it," Lambert said. "That's the mentality we came into this game with. We weren't going to go down without a fight and I think we showed that tonight."
"We just played with so much heart this game," McClean added. "We were ready to go today and decided to go all out."
Basauri scored consecutive aces in the third set and then fearlessly stepped in front of a huge Central kill, dug the ball into the air which led to a Brown roundhouse kill that gave Southridge an early 12-7 lead. The Rams, to their credit, fought back and made the third set competitive with a 5-0 run that cut Southridge's advantage to 23-21. But Southridge junior Teddy Batinkova came up with a big block in the middle to go up 24-23. Central tied it up at 24-24 but served a ball into the net to give Southridge a 25-24 lead. On the next point, the Rams couldn't come up with an offensive counter to secure Southridge's state crown.
"We wanted to have a lot of steady energy and not have the ups and downs," Lambert said. "I'm really proud of how we didn't get down on ourselves."
Four years ago, Southridge's senior class was a part of the 2014 team that won the OSAA's "sportsmanship" award — an honor often given to the team that loses its first two matches of the tournament, but still comes to the games to at least watch their opponents advance in state. Now they can call themselves champs.
"We worked so hard for this," McClean said. "Central Catholic played well, but it was great to come through."