Perfect ending: Spain Park wins first state championship in school history, completes redemption path

Published 2:24 pm Thursday, October 28, 2021

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

BIRMINGHAM – Walking off the court at the end of the 2020 volleyball season dejected after a 3-0 loss to rival Hoover in the state championship, Spain Park volleyball star Audrey Rothman made a promise to head coach Kellye Bowen. “Hey, I’m winning this next year.”

On Thursday, Oct. 28, she not only held true to her promise but put home the final point in a sweep of No. 2 McGill-Toolen to give the Spain Park Jaguars their first state championship in school history and a completed redemption path.

“I said that last year as soon as we walked off the court in a heartbreaking moment,” Rothman said. “You have all year to get better, it eats away at you, so we knew coming into this season that we were the only thing stopping ourselves from getting it. We really focused on putting ourselves in adversity and our team culture every single day so that we knew when we got to this point we would win. It really paid off in the end.”

As for getting the final kill in the win, it capped off a special run that saw the Jaguars overcome a 20-16 deficit in the third set to pick up a 25-23 win, and the play was almost a sum of the team’s 47-4 season.

“We practice that all the time,” Rothman said. “I knew, I was like, ‘This is a big moment, and I need to show up right now and put this ball away right now for my teammates.”

She put it away, and immediately turned to face her teammates before an all-out celebration broke out with the entire team tackling one another into a dog pile following the straight-set victory by scores of 26-24, 25-23, 25-23.

“In August, September, they had one vision, and they played like it,” Bowen said after the win. “I couldn’t be more proud. This is probably one of my favorite teams, not just because of the talent, but just the overall personality and character of this team.”

In the opening set, they showed that determination quickly.

Spain Park was able to open up a three-point lead at 13-10, but there wasn’t much separation after that.

The two traded points all the way up to a 23-23 tie, but McGill-Toolen got the first crack at set point for the championship match.

Trailing 24-23, the Jags, however, dug deep for the first of their of three straight comeback victories of the match.

Not only did they stave off set point, but they won the next three points in a row to take the all-important opening set 26-24.

It was the second-set comeback, however, that made a key difference.

McGill looked to be bouncing back in a big way with a 6-0 start to the set. The Jackets went on to grab a 9-5 lead, but Spain Park stormed back to tie the set at 11-11.

Still, McGill-Toolen was able to grab the lead by as many as three a few different times the rest of the way, including as late as 20-17.

The Jags, however, responded with a 3-0 run to close the gap, which led to an exciting finish.

After battling to a 22-22 tie, Rothman was once again in the spotlight after a remarkable save.

Looking to avoid a late deficit, she laid out over the media table close to 10 feet outside the boundary line and hit the ball back in play. Not only did she get it back, but the Jags then got it over the net and one the point without a McGill return.

That gave the Jags a 23-22 advantage, their first lead of the set.

They capitalized on that momentum shift and went on to win the second set 25-23 for a 2-0 lead in the match.

“Right then, there is nothing really going through your head, except that it’s your responsibility to your team,” Rothman said. “We really value playing for each other, and I just wanted to go get that ball. I thought I wasn’t, but I did.”

The Jags again faced several deficits in the third set, trailing by as many as five points on multiple occasions, including as late as 18-13.

But after falling behind 20-16 later in the set, the Jags won the next point, which completely shifted everything. It started a 5-0 run to give them the lead.

With McGill-Toolen fighting for its season, the Jags knew they felt the pressure and capitalized. They went on to pick up their second 25-23 set win in a row, capped off by Rothman’s kill to win the championship.

It also marked a special postseason run for the Jags, who dropped just one set between the three regional matchups and the three matches at state tournament.

That lone set loss came in an emotional 3-1 win against Hoover that kept their season alive and helped them eliminate their cross-town rival and last year’s champion.

“We’ve been chasing this for 10 years,” Bowen said. “We’ve had some special groups, and this group is just really gritty. They had a lot of guts. They fought and fought and fought, and I couldn’t be more proud. I’m not shocked, but it’s a very weird feeling of ‘Ok, we did what we set out to do.’ I knew if they played their best, nobody could beat them, and they proved that today.”

Spain Park was led by Rothman with 24 kills in the state championship, while she also added 12 digs to finish in a tie for second on the team. Emily Breazeale finished a special year with 11 kills and seven digs in the win, while Lilly Johnson totaled 22 assists and 12 digs.

Brooklyn Allison added 14 digs to lead the team, while she also posted seven assists.

Those four players were named to the All-Tournament Team, while Rothman was named the Most Valuable Player. Bella Halyard left her mark as well with 10 assists and seven digs.

“Whether it be practice, whether it be games, if something was off, they would be quick to come together and say ‘Hey, this is not what we want and we need to focus.’ That’s the special part is when you have a team that takes ownership of that team, and that’s what they did.”