Woodford County High School volleyball coach Meghan Bottom describes her team’s efforts the past few months as “a very special season.” It would be tough to disagree. The Lady Yellow Jackets finished the season with a 31-9 record and reached the region finals for the first time since 2004. The team won a preseason tournament at the Bluegrass State Games, took first place at the Boyle County Invitational, and dominated the 30th District in both the regular and post seasons. The run finally ended in last Thursday’s 8th Region Tournament finals at North Oldham High School with a 3-0 loss to the Mustangs.
For Bottom, what made the season special goes beyond the wins and accomplishments.
“This was a very special season with a very special family,” Bottom said. “This season, we emphasized controlling the things you can control and family. The girls knew all they could do was their best and to play together like a family. They didn’t put any extra pressure on themselves with wins and losses, and worked hard to make their volleyball family the best it could be.”
Those familial bonds helped soften the blow of a hard-fought defeat in Goshen on Halloween night. The Jackets battled hard and played well, but the Lady Mustangs had an answer for seemingly everything and won in straight sets with scores of 25-18, 25-16 and 25-11.
“We were able to challenge them but had a hard time ending points when we needed to. The scores of each set were not indicative of how we played,” said Bottom.
The Lady Yellow Jackets took the court in the opening set with a nervous energy that felt palpable throughout the gym. It was uncharted waters for a team making its deepest postseason run in 15 years and the Jackets were facing a lurking sea monster in the sixth-ranked Mustangs.
Woodford County began the night trading blows in the first set, playing well in spite of the nerves. Through the course of the night, that energy would fade as the Jackets’ best efforts were repeatedly not quite enough to win long rallies for points and ultimately, the sets.
The teams went back and forth to start the opening frame and were tied 4-4 before the Mustangs began to pull away with four consecutive points. A poor serve and a Legend Burgess block closed the gap to two, but a few moments later the margin was back to 14-7 and the Lady Jackets needed an answer. Strong defense brought WCHS back into it four straight points, three of which came via blocks at the net to bring the score to 14-11.
That was as close as the Yellow Jackets would get in the first set. North Oldham pulled away to take the first set by consistently tucking balls inside the lines and wearing Woodford’s defense down.
“There were a lot of nerves at the beginning of the match,” Bottom said of her team. “Even with the nerves, the girls came out with a ton of positive energy knowing they could compete against a very good team.”
The second set started rough for Woodford. After Burgess scored the first point to open the set, North Oldham scored 11 of the next 12 points to take a commanding 11-2 lead. The Volley Jackets didn’t commit many unforced errors as they fell behind, NOHS just continued to play sound defense and converted several kills that any high school team would have trouble defending.
The teams played even from that point in the set, losing 25-16. The Woodford defense throughout the season was at its best when the blockers up front could turn away opportunities and keep the back half of the defense from scrambling to make plays and keep the ball alive. In the second set, the Lady Mustangs were able to get the ball past the first wave of defense and challenge the WCHS defense, forcing the Jackets to make digs as North gradually opened up gaps to place the ball.
It was a well-played game for one of the state’s premier teams. The Mustangs traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to play in the Nike Tournament of Champions against teams from Arizona, California, Florida and Georgia. The Kentucky Volleyball Coaches Association considered them the undispited favorite to beat in the 8th Region and they proved it with a dominant third set in which they built a 13-4 lead on their way to a 25-11 victory to sweep Woodford.
As runners-up, the Lady Jackets were awarded three All-Tournament awards. Setter Evelyn Milburn, Piper McCoun and Burgess were granted the honors for their performances. Moments before receiving their awards, Bottom gathered the team together in what looked to be an emotional huddle from afar.
“We discussed how moving forward doesn’t necessarily mean the end of that (volleyball) family and we thanked the seniors for everything they did throughout their volleyball careers to move Woodford volleyball in a positive direction. It was incredibly emotional not just for the seniors, but for the entire team. When you see that out of your players, you know you have gotten more out of the season than just skills. They’ve developed relationships that will last a lifetime,” said Bottom.
The move to the 8th Region has already granted opportunities for Woodford County teams to fare better in tournament play with an overall shallower talent pool to wade through. The WCHS boys’ soccer team made the region semifinals before a loss to North Oldham and the WCHS girls’ soccer team made the semis before falling to South Oldham. One thing has been clear since the region realignment – the Oldham County schools will be the biggest obstacle for Woodford County teams as they try to qualify for state tournaments.
It’s a challenge Bottom knows her team will face next year as the team returns most of the nucleus that brought it one game away from a state tournament berth. But Bottom says a successful 2020 season won’t be purely measured by how many games the Lady Jackets win.
“We will need to continue to focus on gradual improvement and not worry about mistakes. Mistakes are a part of the game. It’s how you deal with them and how you support your teammates through them that determine whether or not you’re successful, not the wins and losses,” Bottom said.
The Lady Jackets will return all but four players next season. In addition to seniors Laura Crutchfield, Caroline Miller and Kennedy Sayre, one of the departures will be setter and senior captain Evelyn Milburn. Milburn finished second on the team in digs this season and led the way with 921 of the team’s 1,028 assists, good for an average of over 7.6 per set. Replacing Milburn’s production would be a tough task for any one player, but Bottom says Madison Tracy and Sydney Bietz could be up for the challenge. Both played hitting positions for varsity this season, but Tracy was the JV setter and Bietz played that role for the freshman team.
There will be plenty of time to prepare for a 2020 run with a loaded junior class with Burgess, McCoun, Hope Baker, Devan Champion, Riley Dawkins and Katie Washington that will be surrounded by younger players like Bietz and Tracy who saw time this season. Until then, Bottom says she’ll be proud of the season that was and the strides made as a group.
“I can’t begin to put into words how proud I am of this team. They’ve been excited for each other in the good times, but more importantly, they’ve been there for one another in the bad times. I’ve seen them grow both on and off the court as teammates, players and mentors for the younger players,” she said, before adding, “That’s how you keep a program growing. When the older players are as invested in the younger players as themselves, the only direction the team can go is up.”