Mission accomplished. The McIntosh Chiefs started this season with one goal in their crosshairs, a second consecutive state volleyball title. With a straight sets victory (25-11, 25-17, 25-8) over the Starr’s Mill Panthers on Saturday at Marietta High School, the Chiefs are state champions for the fourth time in program history.
At match point, a Raegan Corley dig to a Jessie Doyal assist to a Ngozi Iloh kill set off a subdued celebration for the Chiefs, one an outside observer might think was as tame as a run-of-the-mill regular season win. For a well-oiled McIntosh machine, it was business, completing a task they had set out for themselves before the season’s first match.
“It feels amazing. This entire season we’ve prepared just for this game. We’ve all been determined and known that we’re good enough to make it here and good enough to be the champions,” said junior setter Jessie Doyal. “We pushed through all season, and this is the outcome we wanted.”
In preseason practice, McIntosh head coach Wendy Mabon could already tell this team was special, and she expected nothing less than excellence.
“They’re such a cool group of kids. They love the game, and, what’s more, I told them before the match, of all the teams I’ve ever coached, this team loves playing with each other the most,” she said. “They just have an incredible team bond and chemistry that’s really fun to be a part of.”
From the outset, the Chiefs looked like a team of destiny with a trophy waiting at the end of the line. They plowed through the competition, compiling a 38-3 record with a flawless 8-0 region mark where they lost just one set total. They ramped up the intensity in the playoffs, winning all 15 sets in postseason play.
In the championship, the Panthers had trouble breaking the Chiefs’ serve all day, especially that of Doyal, who keyed several long runs. She served up a 10-0 start to the first set and a 12-0 start to the third set.
Coming off a 25-11 first-set loss, Starr’s Mill started funneling the offense more through the middle and fabulous freshman middle hitter Nicole Smith. It was a strategy that worked in a semifinal rally over Whitewater, but McIntosh was prepared. Ngozi Iloh and Kendall Moore were a brick wall in the middle, returning several hot shots back to the Panthers.
“We were expecting it,” said Mabon. “Their middles are their strength, especially with number 15 (Smith), and so we had gameplanned against that, and when they started to do it more, we shut it down and continued our gameplan.”
McIntosh put away the second set 25-17 on an Erykah Lovett to set up the decisive set.
The Chiefs left little room for a rally, racing out to a 12-0 start. Starr’s Mill pushed back in the middle, but McIntosh put it away and claimed the championship with a 25-8 win.
Familiarity between the rivals led to pregame jawing, but the Chiefs made sure to take care of business from the beginning. They took a little extra pleasure in claiming the crown over their crosstown rivals.
“Everyone was talking trash before the game, so it was nice to finish it out on the court,” said sophomore libero Claire Lewis.
“It was so sweet,” said Doyal. “There was a little trash talking before the game, and we did most of our talking on the court.”
Starr’s Mill is feeling the bitter sting of a championship loss to their rivals, but in time they will be able to look back on a tremendous season that saw them finish the season 33-17. They routinely shook off adversity, charging through the playoffs on the road after entering the postseason as the region’s three seed. When they fell behind two sets to none to Whitewater in the semifinals, lesser teams might have crumbled, but the Panthers clawed back to win and punch their ticket to the championship.
Jason Flowers, in his first year as head coach of the team, was most proud of their never-say-die attitude.
“It’s their ability to fight through the last two rounds and not give up and not quit,” he said. “We’re not satisfied with just getting here, but we’re really happy with how we got here.”
Odds are this will not be the last time we see a Battle of the Bubble for the volleyball title. Outside hitter Megan Lee is the only starter the Panthers will lose to graduation, so Flowers likes their chances of getting back for a shot at revenge with a fantastic core including libero Georgia Waller, setter Tessa Laney, and outside hitters Kayla Sloan and Lilly Ryan.
“It’ll be another matchup like this hopefully,” he said. “We’re looking for a repeat of this.”
It’s a continuation of the volleyball domination for the county, especially between the Chiefs, Panthers, and Whitewater Wildcats, who comprised three of the final four teams in Class AAAAA.
“It’s a legacy to the county itself, and it’s not a new thing,” said Flowers. “All three of us are in the mix somewhere at the end, and I think that breeds competition for everybody to always be working to get better. I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.”
McIntosh sophomore Ngozi Iloh is proud of how much elite talent Fayette produces.
“It’s really cool to have such good volleyball players in our backyard,” she said.
With the county feeling good about next season’s prospects, the outlook is rosiest for the Chiefs. They return every player on their roster, including key contributors Riley Buckles, MJ Cackett, Alexa Markley, and Madee Colvin. With a core heavy on sophomores and freshmen and brimming with confidence from back-to-back titles, they have visions of a dynasty in the making. It starts with a three-peat.
“That is what is expected,” said Doyal. “We will accept nothing less.”
“Maybe a four-peat,” said Iloh.
To see more photos from the state championship match, click here.