Westminster loses state title in five-set thriller, gains new belief

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

BIRMINGHAM – As soon as Virginia Welch’s serve landed out of bounds to give Donoho the Class 1A State Championship, her teammates immediately ran to their teammate and huddled around her with encouraging words and smiles at the unbelievable comeback the senior almost led at the service line.

While tears overcame her, she was part of a comeback attempt that saw the Knights down 14-8 when she stepped to the service line. But with comfort, she and her teammates cut the deficit to 14-12 shortly after. Then came the point. It was as close to being as perfect serve as it could have been. The ball curved over the front side of the net where there were no Donoho players and was headed toward her first ace of the match until it landed an inch off the boundary line.

“It’s the old baseball story, ‘The last guy that strikes out loses the game,’” Westminster head coach John Jones said. “Of course, she felt that way. She just had to understand that if it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t have been here. It hurt, and it’s OK to hurt, but she’ll move on and be fine.”

And that’s the attitude every player on the court had, not only running up to their teammate with smiles, but accepting the runner-up red map with jubilation and walking into the interview room with smiles on their faces and even sharing a few laughs.

This is the finest group of girls I’ve ever known in my life,” Jones said.

And why shouldn’t the Knights have been ecstatic. In just their fourth year with a varsity volleyball program, they advanced to the state championship matches, and not just that, they’ve now been to the state tournament in three of their four years.

“All of us today, we were just proud that we made it here,” Payton Metcalf said. “We said coming into the day that win or lose, we win or lose as a team and we’re going to be proud of that red map if we get that. It’s our first map ever and we’re proud of what we accomplished this year.”

A big reason for that excitement was because of senior Hallie Anne Jones.

“She’s been really pushing this on us,” Jones said with the other players agreeing. “She’s our big cheerleader. She screams louder than anybody and she’s formed this group into a group that gets excited. And I’m glad we were excited about this. I would have rather had the blue, but the red isn’t bad.”

The run itself was a special one for the Knights, who had fallen in the first round of the state tournament (Elite Eight) each of the last two years, but didn’t just break down that wall this season, they took it two steps further to the championship match.

“At the beginning of the season, all of the seniors got together and for the first time ever, we said this is going to be the year we go to the state championship,” Metcalf said. “We focused our group of girls before the season started to do everything they could to get us there. The last couple of years, seeing how far we could go and getting to the Elite Eight was our goal. We made state our goal this year. We didn’t put a wall up in the Elite Eight, we put it up at the end.”

The final score of the match ended up being 3-2 (24-26, 25-20, 18-25, 28-26, 15-12), but the story was the comebacks from the two teams.

After Westminster took a 2-1 lead, the Knights were a set away from the state championship and looked to be in good shape after grabbing a 23-18 and 24-19 lead late for match point.

But Donoho’s players left it all on the line and if they were going to lose, they wanted to go out with everything they had. That led to the Falcons coming back to tie the match at 24-24.

Westminster eventually got match point again at 25-24, but this time Donoho not only killed another match point, the Falcons won three of the next four points to pull off a remarkable comeback for the 28-26 victory.

With the Knights now a little on edge with nerves following that, Donoho took advantage and jolted out to a 13-3 lead in the tiebreaker set.

But this time, Westminster didn’t panic.

The Knights went on to cut the lead to 13-7, before giving Donoho match point at 14-7.

The Falcons, however, gave it right back to Westminster with a 14-8 lead, which sent Welch to the service line. She was not only able to put together several clutch serves in a row, but her teammates started feeling more comfortable and got clean sets.

“I absolutely thought we could do it,” Jones said. “That was a good rotation for us and Virginia has been serving like that all year for us. It’s a group that doesn’t quit no matter what sport it is. This group of girls is fantastic and I’ll always remember what they did.”

Westminster came all the way back to cut the deficit to 14-12, and that’s when Welch’s serve just missed the left side boundary line.

But it’s not that last serve her senior teammates will remember or the young players coming back will remember. For the seniors, they’ll remember the special ride and the tenacity for which she played with at the end.

And for the young players that will be back, they now believe they can win it all, and that’s because of the leadership and example seniors like Welch, Metcalf, Jones, Mary Catherin Griffith, Sarah Click and Caroline Lund showed.

Metcalf, junior Molly Reynolds and junior Bailee Acker were named to the all-tournament team for their effort throughout the state tournament.