Coosa Valley ends magical season undefeated, claims first state title
By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor
MONTGOMERY – Head Coach Jamie Gill and her team were familiar with the stage. The Coosa Valley volleyball Lady Rebels had been in the same position, in the same gym, almost one year ago to the day, and had returned to that same gym to finish some unsettled business.
A year ago, Coosa Valley made an appearance in the AISA AA volleyball Final Four, but had been outed by Macon-East in the semifinals. That Macon-East team went on to beat Kingwood Christian in the finals and win its fifth-straight AISA AA volleyball championship, finishing the season undefeated. This year, it was Coosa Valley that came into the Final Four with an undefeated, 24-0 record, looking to dethrone the Lady Knights and claim the school’s first-ever volleyball state title.
Coosa Valley had seen Macon-East three times prior to the Final Four this season, and while two of those games had been pushed to five sets, the Lady Rebels had walked away with all three victories. The one that mattered the most however was the crucial fourth match, which Gill admitted held more weight than any other finals matchup would have.
“Of course,” she said with a smile. “We’re ready though, we’ve prepared, we’ve watched some film. I only graduated one senior (last year), my three seniors have been here before, we feel comfortable.”
Before Coosa Valley could try and extract their revenge on Macon-East, however, the Lady Rebels had to get past a good Lee-Scott team in the semifinals. The Lady Rebels made short work of that, however, and advanced to 25-0 in straight sets 25-18, 25-20, 25-16 to set up a finals showdown with the five-time defending champs. Kalei Merrifield, Sarah Warren and Allee Slaten helped lead Coosa Valley to the win over Lee-Scott in a match that the Lady Rebels were never down by even a single point.
“I feel great, I feel like my girls are really focused,” Gill said after the Lee-Scott win. “We’ve been trying to represent Christ in everything we do, that’s been our intention since the beginning of the season, and I just told them to get out there and play for Jesus. Play as hard as you can.”
Macon-East beat Bessemer Academy in the other semifinal, and came into the finals looking to extend their state championship streak to six games. The first set was all Coosa Valley however, as Merrifield took control of the set early and willed the Lady Rebels to a 25-18 win to take an early, crucial 1-0 lead in the match.
Macon-East however was not about to roll over and give the championship to the Lady Rebels without a fight, and battled back to win the second set 25-16, leading from the first point all the way through. A team with a championship pedigree like the Lady Knights wasn’t going to roll over, and Macon-East showed they weren’t going to.
With the match tied at one set apiece, Coosa Valley went to work. The Lady Rebels’ bench is deep, but only seven players saw the lion’s share of the minutes in the finals, those being Merrifield, Warren, Slaten, Sydni Bolden, Aurora Martinez, Tayler Forstmann and Meleah Craft, and those seven took a close third set 25-21.
With the momentum behind them and a raucous crowd in support, the Lady Rebels came back from down 10-13 in the fourth set to tie things up 13-13 before winning 12 of the next 17 points to take the state title. The final scorecard read 25-18, 16-25, 25-21, 25-17 in favor of Coosa Valley.
“We just give all glory to God,” Gill said after the title had been won. “I did feel like we let down a little bit in that second set, but we came back out strong and pulled the momentum back. I know they had won five (championships) in a row. They’re a great team, a great program. (But) my girls have worked hard all year. This was the goal. This is it, this is what we were working for.”
Warren, one of the three seniors on the team, was named an All-Tournament selection alongside Slaten, while Merrifield, another senior, was named the Tournament MVP.
“Our goal was to make it back here,” Merrifield, the AISA AA tournament MVP, said after the match. “That was our number one goal was to come back here. We wanted to come here and fight with all we had.”
Surrounded by family, fans and friends, the Lady Rebels hugged and cried and laughed together on the court. When asked, Merrifield couldn’t quite put a finger on what she was feeling.
“The feeling is just indescribable,” she said. “They’re (Macon-East) an amazing team. Being the underdogs last year to winning state this year, the feeling is just indescribable.”
Coosa Valley finished the 2016 season with a 26-0 record, and became just the third Shelby County AISA team to win a volleyball state title. The Lady Rebels will graduate three seniors, and will return a number of key pieces next year as well.