Spain Park’s remarkable postseason run ends with championship loss

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

BIRMINGHAM – When Spain Park head volleyball coach Kellye Bowen walked the trophy to senior Abby Byrd sitting on the bench inside Bill Harris Arena on Thursday, Oct. 29, it wasn’t the trophy she hoped for, but the moment spoke volumes.

Byrd grabbed the runner-up trophy from her head coach, and her facial expression showed it all. Following a 3-0 (25-15, 25-16, 25-23) loss to Hoover in the Class 7A State Championship, it wasn’t the ending the Jags had hoped for, but Byrd’s face was in shock that her head coach brought the trophy to her knowing what the team had just accomplished.

Behind her on the bench was Katelyn Walsh in tears, knowing that her career had just ended with players consoling her, but she too soon gained her composure, knowing what she had just done for the future of the program.

You see, Spain Park hadn’t even been to the state tournament since 2003 before making it this year, yet this group of players not only made that leap into the Elite Eight, but took the Jags to their first state championship appearance in school history.

“This is the first team to ever make it this far,” Walsh said after the match. “That’s because of our talent and because of the hard work and dedication that we put in. I’ve never been part of a team that cared this much and sacrificed as much as this team did to be here. We had a lot of ups and downs, and it just means a lot that our hard work paid off and we got to make it this far to make history for our school.”

Walsh, Byrd and Bella Pretnar were the three seniors on the team, and now all three, along with the rest of the 2020 team, will be remembered as the first senior class to lead the Jags to a state championship match.

That’s something that has left a lasting impact on the younger players who look up to them and hope to carry on their legacy.

“We’re obviously very thankful to have the opportunity, especially after the adversity we faced during the middle of the season. It was really nice, especially for our seniors this year. They worked so hard these past few years,” junior Audrey Rothman said. “We played for them this season.”

It was a magical run for the Jags, who didn’t flinch at the postseason spotlight despite not being on the stage in 17 years, but it didn’t come without turmoil after facing some adversity during the middle of the season, not handling the stretch very well.

“I’m not trying to create adversity, but there are times you create that to make them fight or make them closer,” head coach Kellye Bowen said after the state championship loss. “But there were times after ball games we would go and have a little conditioning session. But they did it together. They worked together. They were gritty because that’s one of the things I told them they weren’t at the beginning of the season, but in the postseason that’s all they were. They played their hearts out.”

That determination to bounce back and do what their coach had asked of them led to the state championship berth, and there isn’t a challenge the Jags wanted more than to take on crosstown rival Hoover.

In the opening set, Spain Park got off to a nice start through the first few points. After falling behind 1-0, the Jags won two in a row to take a 2-1 lead and also held a 3-2 lead.

But after that, Hoover showed its dominance at the net.

Gabrielle Essix, among others, were able to get clean shots, and with their height, it led to several points in a row. They not only did it with kills, but blocks as well.

Normally a solid spiking team, Spain Park struggled to find a gap to get the ball through with Hoover’s height causing problems and leading to a 9-0 run.That put the Bucs in front 11-3, and as soon as the Jags halted that run with a point, Hoover used another 4-0 run to open up a 15-4 advantage.

The Jaguars battled back late in the set, finally getting some blocks at the net and seeing the ball better off the Hoover kills, but the Bucs had created enough cushion and sailed to a 25-15 opening-set win.

The second set, however, was a much different story for a long time.

Spain Park came out playing great volleyball and took an early 5-2 lead. Hoover went on a 4-0 run after that, but the Jags didn’t let it get out of control this time around.

They responded with a 2-0 run to even the score, before the teams went back and forth trading points up to a 14-14 tie.

But, that’s when the Bucs found their rhythm again.

Spain Park was watching balls sail out of bounds and getting good coverage across the court for the first portion of the set, but Hoover started finding openings and took advantage.

The Jags were within one point at 16-15, but the Bucs answered with a 9-1 run to close the set and take a 2-0 lead.

That transitioned into an incredible third set, which saw the Jaguars jump out to their largest lead of the night at 7-2.

Hoover, as usual, battled back to eventually tie the set at 11-11, but Spain Park wasn’t going to make winning the championship easy.

The Bucs took their first lead of the set at 14-13, which sparked another back-and-forth battle.

Neither team held more than a two-point lead the rest of the way, eventually going to a 23-23 tie.

But Hoover earned match point at 24-23, and on a confusing last play that saw the Jags trying to get a timeout in, the head official signaled for play to start with some not ready, eventually ending with Hoover winning championship point to complete the sweep.

Rothman led Spain Park in the match with 15 kills and also added eight assists and four digs. Breazeale finished with six kills and three digs, while Lilly Johnson led the team with 13 assists. Walsh ended her final game with a game-high 17 digs.

During that final set, the Jags were locked in on an exciting battle with one of the country’s best teams trying to keep their season alive just a little longer with each point.

“It was a lot of fun, and I mean Hoover’s a great team,” Walsh said. “I wouldn’t want to just come in one day and not have to compete to win. It’s more fun that way, just getting to compete and push ourselves.”

It was a moment many like Rothman won’t forget and will let push them moving forward.

“These are the games you play for ever since you’re in middle school and watch the high school girls, you want to go and play in the state championship,” Rothman said. “We’re just grateful for the opportunity. I know that’s how I got started.”

After the loss, all of the players huddled together on the floor with tears, but there was also an obvious look of almost confidence that this wouldn’t be the last time we see the Spain Park Jaguars competing for a state championship.

The All-Tournament team featured Emily Breazeale, Rothman and Walsh. Walsh is the only one that is leaving as a senior.

“We’ve definitely raised the expectations. In past year’s there have been times where we had so much talent and didn’t make it out of area when we should have, and this year, we did things no one expected us to do and that’s all going to carry on.”