Mission accomplished. The McIntosh Chiefs came into the season with one big goal: Win their third-straight state volleyball championship. They rolled through a fearsome schedule, finishing off the campaign with a sterling 36-1 record and capped it off by hoisting the trophy Saturday at Marietta High with a straight-sets victory over the Whitewater Wildcats (25-10, 25-12, 25-12).
The win over Whitewater gives the Chiefs their fifth championship and third in a row, the first time any McIntosh team has completed a three-peat.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said McIntosh coach Wendy Mabon. “It’s where we wanted to be from the beginning of the season, so it’s nice to be here and see it come to fruition.”
The championship was the culmination of a whirlwind week for Mabon. Just days before, she gave birth, and was soon back on the sideline leading her team to victory.
“It’s been a crazy week for me,” she said.
The Chiefs started the match with their trademark laser-like focus playing hard for their coach and for each other. Led by a dominant serving run from Riley Buckles, including a pair of aces, they raced out to a 10-1 lead.
Keyed by two aces from Adriana Szuch, the Wildcats got back within 12-6, but McIntosh kept them at bay, pulling away for a 25-10 win in the first set.
Whitewater started the second set strong, tying it at 4-4 on a Jonna Knight ace. McIntosh responded and would not trail again in the set. A serving run by MJ Cackett pushed them in front by four points, but an Elizabeth Skibiel ace kept it close.
Erykah Lovett and Claire Lewis each served up runs, and Madee Colvin notched two aces as they pulled away for a 25-12 win.
McIntosh kept their foot on the gas in the third set with the championship in sight. After Whitewater scored the set’s first point, the Chiefs never again trailed. Buckles staked them to an 8-2 lead, and Cackett served up eight-straight points for a commanding 17-3 advantage.
Whitewater wouldn’t give up, clawing out six of the next seven points. McIntosh was unfazed, steadying themselves for the stretch run. With a dig by Jessie Doyal, set by Claire Lewis, and kill from Alexa Markley the Chiefs had a 25-12 set win and another state championship victory.
The final point kicked off a celebration that was pretty tame by state championship standards, but not unexpected for a team that planned to be back on top from the moment they won last year.
“We kind of assumed we were going to make state again because we had the same exact team because we lost no seniors from last year,” said junior libero Claire Lewis. “It feels great.”
Senior setter Jessie Doyal has only known success at McIntosh. After finishing as runner-up her freshman year, she has been a key force on three-straight championship teams.
“I think it’s amazing. I made it to the state finals every year,” she said “This group of girls has brought us the state championship the last three years, and we’re the first ever sports team from McIntosh to have three (titles) in a row.”
Whitewater finishes the season 29-20, entering the championship match after a thrilling five-set win over Starr’s Mill (25-19, 22-25, 14-25, 25-16, 15-13) in the semifinals.
Whitewater had already lost to the Panthers twice this year, once in the regular season and once in the region tournament, but they showed no signs of nerves. In the first set, they built up a lead that peaked at eight points at 19-11. Starr’s Mill chipped away at the deficit late, but the Wildcats claimed the first set 25-19.
The second set followed a similar pattern with the ending reversed. An early back-and-forth pace saw the Cats pull in front by four points, and the Panthers rallied. Whitewater even held the lead from 9-8 all the way until 22-21. Digging out of a three-point deficit late, Starr’s Mill finally took the lead for the first time at 23-22, and Kayla Sloan clinched the 25-22 win with an ace.
The Panthers continued building on the momentum to run away with the third set 25-14 and hold a 2-1 lead overall.
The Cats shook off the lopsided loss in the third set and returned the favor. It was even early before they pulled away to win 25-16 and force a decisive fifth set.
The final set was a beautiful finish as a rowdy crowd got their money’s worth. No team could take control, with the biggest least coming at just 11-8 in Whitewater’s favor. The lead swung sides throughout, and Starr’s Mill held it for the final time at 12-11. Whitewater pulled off two-straight points to lead again, and the Panthers tied it back up at 13-all. The Cats finished off the night with two more in a roll, the decisive blow coming on a block at the net for a 15-13 win and a trip to the state championship.
With three rings on their fingers, the returning Chiefs already have their sights set on a four-peat.
“It’s going to be hard, but we’re definitely going to be back here if we’re hardworking, diligent, and play as a team,” said junior Ngozi Iloh.
They will lose some key seniors in Doyal, Buckles, Colvin, Kendall Moore, and Raegan Corley, but the bulk of the squad returns, and Mabon is confident they’ll have what it takes to return to the the top.
“That’s the plan. All our big offensive players are back,” she said. “We’re losing some defense and Jessie (Doyal) our setter, so we’ll have to rebuild in those areas, but I think we’ve got players ready to go to take over those spots, so we’ll be at it again next year.”
Doyal is confident next year’s crew will hoist the trophy again. Her class has helped push the program to unprecedented heights, and she doesn’t expect them to dip anytime soon.
“Yes, I have high expectations for them,” she said. “They’ve got it.”