BIRMINGHAM — In the end, everybody wanted a piece of the championship trophy, and the 20-yard sprint to get it has never been sweeter for the Hartselle High volleyball team.
Exorcising some demons from past losses in Class 5A Elite Eight matches against St. Paul’s, the Tigers swept their way to the first volleyball title this morning at the Birmingham Crossplex. And now, school officials will have to find a little more space in the new school’s trophy case for another championship trophy.
“Oh yeah, we’re gonna put it right in the middle of the other trophies,” Elite Eight MVP Taylor Dellinger said, grinning.
“We’re going to hang the first championship banner in the new school,” added coach Tanya Lybarger.
The championship ended seven years of frustration for the Tigers, who have been making it to the state tournament every year since 2006 but never celebrating a breakthrough win. Now, a team with only two seniors seems positioned to be the team to beat for a while.
Winning most of the key points, the Tigers (48-19) toppled two-time defending state champion St. Paul’s 25-21, 25-23, 25-21.
For Lybarger, the victory was especially sweet. She can celebrate with daughter Taylor, who had 10 kills, 3 blocks and 16 digs in the title match.
“It’s beyond exciting,” she said. “I’m excited for these girls. To be able to share it with my daughter, that’s awesome. I feel like every one of these girls belongs to me. I like for them to set a goal and be able to finish.”
Dellinger, one of five sophomores, led the Tigers with 14 kills. She had 19 digs and 5 blocks. Haley Jared had a team-high 9 blocks, while Melissa Paul Hill had 24 assists and 4 aces. Sarah Ellen Battles added 19 digs.
Shelley Spires led St. Paul’s (48-18) with 12 kills.
Players said the win was even more special because it came against perennial power St. Paul’s, a team with 13 state titles to its credit, including five of the past six before Thursday.
“They put us out I don’t know how many times,” Taylor Lybarger said. “It was our time.”
The championship match pitted the top two teams in the final regular-season rankings, and it more than lived up to the hype. There were many sustained rallies, but in the end it was Hartselle’s play at the net and its ability to win key points to either kill St. Paul’s momentum or sustain its own momentum that keyed the victory.
In the first set, St. Paul’s led 16-15 before Hartselle ripped off four straight points behind a kill and two Dellinger blocks along with another block by Taylor Lybarger.
Dellinger had the final two kills to close out the second set, and a key 4-1 run in the third that snapped a 17-all tie was all the separation the Tigers needed to close out the match.
“They blocked well,” Tanya Lybarger said. “We knew (Spires). We knew we had to shut her down. That is their go-to player. I told my middles to cheat to her. (Dellinger) will handle the other side.”
St. Paul’s coach Kelli Hillier agreed Hartselle’s play at the net made a big difference.
“They took us out of our game a little bit with their blocking,” she said. “Their blocking was very strong. They played with a nothing-to-lose attitude. They had very high emotion.”
Dellinger said playing with emotion was another key.
“We knew if we didn’t celebrate every single point that there could be an opportunity for them to get that energy and steal it away from us,” Dellinger said. “We knew we had to start from the beginning and keep it all through the match like we did and win it.”
When they won the championship point, there were hugs, tears and smiles all around. And, finally the team’s mad dash to touch what had been an elusive championship trophy as Tanya Lybarger soaked up the moment from the sideline.
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