The dynasty continues. The McIntosh volleyball powerhouse had their vision locked on one goal for a calendar year, and they fulfilled their destiny with a history-making fourth-straight state championship, besting Blessed Trinity 3-1 (25-20, 25-20, 23-25, 25-23) on Saturday.
From the moment they beat Whitewater for the title last year, the Chiefs set their sights on something truly unprecedented, a four-peat. All of the hard work and preparation came to fruition against Blessed Trinity.
“We did it,” said McIntosh coach Wendy Mabon. “We worked so hard all season and kept coming back. This team gives me heart attacks because every match it seemed like we had to come back, but they fight and they play together so well. I really love that about them.”
Even the fourth time over, the sweet taste of victory never grows stale.
“Oh my gosh. It’s surreal,” said junior outside hitter Alexa Markley. “We worked hard for every point. Everybody did amazing. We were all there for each other, so I am super excited and very, very thankful.”
The Titans opened the first set with a 4-0 lead, but the Chiefs came roaring back to tie it. The lead traded hands until McIntosh grabbed it to stay at 8-7, keeping them at arm’s length the rest of the way. Markley’s kill sealed the first set, 25-20, for the Chiefs.
The second set followed the same pattern as the Titans built up a commanding early 9-2 lead. Steadily the Chiefs chipped away until they took their first lead of the set at 18-17. They scored 7 of the next 9 points to take the second set 25-20.
Blessed Trinity did not go down without a fight. Facing elimination, they erased a five-point deficit at 18-13 and surged ahead, then fended off a late challenge to claim the third set 25-23.
Even after Blessed Trinity won the third set, the Chiefs were not rattled against a fellow defending champion.
“We all wanted it so bad. We knew it wasn’t the end,” said senior setter Claire Lewis. “They had everything to lose, and we were just fighting as hard as we could. We wanted it all season, and we finally got it.”
“The key was just staying consistent and believing in ourselves that all the pressure was over there,” said Mabon. “We needed to just play every point for the love and togetherness of the game.”
In the fourth set, the teams flipped the script as the Chiefs raced out to a 6-2 advantage only to have the Titans score five-straight points to take the lead. It was a back-and-forth affair with the gap peaking at a 19-15 Titan lead. McIntosh strung together a crucial five-point swing on a Ngozi Iloh service run as they turned it from a 20-18 deficit into a 23-20 lead, capped off by an ace.
A Markley kill pushed it to the brink at 24-22, then the Titans stayed alive with a point of their own. With a diving Riley Barber dig to a Claire Lewis cross-court set to a high-flying Markley kill, McIntosh completed the four-peat with a 25-23 fourth-set victory.
Markley led the way with 21 kills in the match, including 7 in the final set and four of the last six points. Iloh posted 15 kills, 5 aces, and 4 blocks. Lewis piled up 39 assists as she rolled over 1,000 for the season. Greta Barrett posted 3 aces, with MJ Cackett adding 2, and Iloh, Lewis, and Emily Rockey each adding one. Following Iloh’s 4 blocks were Amy Marquez with 4, Markley with 2, Lewis with 2, and Camille Garrett with 1. Riley Barber added 5 kills, and Garrett picked up 2. Cackett led the squad with 16 digs, followed by Lewis with 11, Barber with 10, Rockey with 8, and Iloh with 5.
The championship was the culmination of a remarkable run for the three-player senior class of MJ Cackett, Ngozi Iloh, and Claire Lewis, who leave McIntosh with nothing but championships on their resumes. As freshmen, Buford was the foe, then they followed that up with wins over county rivals Starr’s Mill as sophomores and Whitewater as juniors.
“It hasn’t even sunken in for me yet, it’s just so crazy,” Cackett said. “We’ve worked so hard this season to get here, so now that we’re here, it’s such a great feeling.”
Iloh never expected to win four-straight titles. Her first goal was simply to help her team get past Buford as a freshman.
“I could not imagine myself getting this far,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without my team. We really supported each other. We always came together to work hard.”
The success of the trio wasn’t a surprise to their coach.
“I said their freshman year that if we didn’t win at least two championships over the next four years that I’m doing something wrong,” said Mabon. “I knew it was going to be fun and exciting, but I never would have dreamed of four.”
Four is sweet, but the McIntosh Machine has the makings of a fifth-straight title with so much talent returning next year.
“I think we’re definitely in it. This team has got the fight. They’ve got the pieces, and they’ve got some excellent younger girls coming up,” said Mabon. “I’m excited. I think it will be an interesting, fun season next year, too.”
Lewis expects that the standard they set won’t slip after she graduates.
“They definitely have a chance, and I’m excited to see them next season,” she said.
Iloh agrees that the tradition will continue with the new crew of Chiefs.
“As long as they keep working hard and keep getting better, as long as they keep up that progression, they can win a fifth one,” Iloh said.
Markley returns next year as their top weapon, and she knows her team won’t let the McIntosh faithful down.
“I believe that we’ll have a lot of talent on our team, so I’m ready for next year,” said Markley.