Retribution wasn't reason enough for the Jesuit volleyball team to pick itself up and race after another Class 6A state championship.
Collectively, the fun-loving Crusaders are probably are more free spirits than mean-spirited maniacs, hell driven at exacting vengeance on the state field for not placing at the 6A state tournament a year ago.
But when Jesuit unceremoniously went two-and-out at the state tourney in 2017, the Crusaders felt a sense of unfulfilled promise. Jesuit knew it had more to give. Its ceiling for elevated play was sky high. And with a close-knit senior core coming back, all the Crusaders needed was an off-season together working out the kinks, sharpening their skills and communication, building an even better team bond.
What arose from last year's ashes was a steamroller that harkened back to the days of the '14 and '15 all-time Jesuit teams. Defensively, Lauren McCabe, Alyssa Hughes, Erin Foley and Lizzie Stegemoller starred. Offensively, Alison Buchholz, Rose Booth and Brooke Olson shouldered the load with their aforementioned teammates providing offensive firepower as well.
Jesuit returned to prominence and put a punctuation mark on its work in the 6A state title game. Playing two of its best sets of the season, the Crusaders swept Sprague 25-13, 25-11, 27-25 at Liberty High School on Nov. 3 to win its first state title since '15.
To dog pile on top of each other as the 27th point was scored, exorcizing demons of the past, while was realizing the present, put the season into perspective.
"Honestly, I was numb, it was the best feeling," Foley said. "All that energy put into that one pile was crazy. That's something you don't get again. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I'm going to remember that forever. We had faith in each other and ourselves. I think that's what got us here. And doing it for our team just made my heart sore."
The Crusaders finished the season with a 29-4 record, losing only games to out-of-state opponents. Jesuit dropped just one set all season, sweeping 28 of their 29 opponents including all three matches at the state tournament. In all, Jesuit went 71-1 in sets against in-state competition with its lone loss coming to Central Catholic in an early-season tourney. This group made it look easy, but don't mistake dominance for an indifferent work ethic. These girls ground it out, year-round, to get back to the pinnacle of the sport, setting aside their own stats and egos for the good of the team. In their minds' eye, it wasn't a sacrifice because this was a unit that truly worked for each other and wanted to succeed together, not individually.
"We all agreed this is the closest team we've ever been on," Foley said. "That was integral to our cohesiveness. We were all about love and passion. This is a really passionate team and we were able to channel that into our game. That was special for me."
You could see it on the floor, too. The smiles never seemed to leave the Crusaders' faces. The inside handshakes from player-to-player between points and sets might have seemed small, but spoke to something bigger. Jesuit was a team of friends who looked out for one another, not a group of talented players thrown together. As Bruno Mars played on the loudspeakers between points, the Crusaders danced and jived both on the floor and on the sideline. Even when matches were tough, Jesuit was able to laugh at its mistakes, flush them, come together and move on. They were comfortable in their own skin and the team dynamic of "Be Us."
"Trust picked us every single time and carried us here," Booth said. "We were in this together. We did this for each other and for our team. I think we're a lot more mature as players. It's a subtle confidence in a way. You don't have to brag or boast, but you know what you do well and how to execute. Even if you make a mistake, your teammates are going to have your back, which is what we're all about."
"This team was like my sisters," McCabe said. "I looked forward to spending every day with them, practicing with them, pushing each other. We all had the same passion and such a tight bond because of it."
After Jesuit swept Sandy in the 6A quarters, Foley said the Crusaders were going to "crank it up" and go out fighting no matter who they faced. In the first two sets of the state match, Jesuit was like a heavyweight fighter going for the knockout against a mismatched foe in the first round. Sprague tied it up 5-5 in the first set only to have Booth rattled off eight straight points to close out the set.
"We had fire," Foley said. "We came into this game wanting to leave everything on the court and I believe we did that. There was a lot of pressure coming from these bleachers, but we just had zoned in on the court and just play volleyball."
Their offense operated at a pell-mell pace, with Buchholz setting up her hitters like Stegemoller and Booth for streaks of kills. McCabe and Hughes, so important all season long, shut down the net which set up Foley and company for defense and subsequent attacks. Jesuit scored 14 of the final 18 points in the second set and never led by less than double figures.
"We knew this was the stage to play our best," Booth said. "Our passing was on the dot and it allowed us to be really aggressive offense. That helped us roll through. Even when Sprague got points, that helped us bounce back and get back to being us."
Sprague showed more fight in the third set, staving off two match points to tie it up 24-24. But Stegemoller killed a pass from Buchholz from the left side of the court and Olson tipped home a kill over the top of the Olympian block for the 27-25 win.
Jesuit didn't concern itself with proving the critics wrong or living up to the expectations heaped on them just by donning the green and gold jerseys. The Crusaders blocked out the chatter surrounding them, the ballyhoo of being the No. 1 team in the land, and kept their team unity tight.
"Jesuit teams often times get super hyped up and that's a lot of pressure to live up to as we saw last year," Booth said. "Just knowing you just have to go out there, be you, be confident and know your hard work is going to pay off is going to be our legacy."
Booth finished with a game-high 16 kills and just three errors. Olson added nine kills, Stegemoller had eight and Hughes chipped in seven. Foley had a team-high 16 digs and Buchholz had 39 assists.