Grace Christian volleyball players, from left, manager Jackson Harrell, coach Erwin Harrell, Merrianna Parker, Lindsey Duke, Kaitlyn Holcombe, Melissa Mills, Kendi Castoro, McKenzie Brown, Kelsey Harrell, Sarah Castoro, Shellby Woodrum, Addie Elkins and manager Brent Warr, celebrate with their state championship trophy. (Special to The Herald)
BAINBRIDGE — The large trophy still sits in the hallway across from the main office at Grace Christian School.
It’s been one week since the Lady Cougars captured the Georgia Independent Schools Association (GISA) Class AA state volleyball championship, the first in any sport at Grace.
The players are still getting congratulatory hand-shakes and high-fives. In fact, there’s still a buzz of excitement associated with the title.
“We’re still really excited,” senior captain Kendi Castoro said. “The journalism class at school the other day did a big article on us in the school newspaper. People are still telling us congratulations.”
Not only is the title still worth talking about to Grace Christian fans, the way the Lady Cougars did it is what makes the story worth telling.
This is only Grace’s third season as a GISA member. The school has enrollment numbers to fit Class A, the smallest classification in the organization, but since so few Class A and Class AA programs have volleyball teams, the school had to play up in class against larger schools with bigger players.
Grace coach Erwin Harrell used the Biblical story of David versus Goliath to describe his team’s championship season.
“The teams we played were older and taller — 5-foot-7 was our tallest player,” he said. “But our girls did a great job of leading. We didn’t have a ton of firepower, but our girls turned it loose.”
The Lady Cougars finished with a 19-5 record. Harrell said his team’s run through the state tournament was remarkable. It started with a sweep of John Hancock in which the Lady Cougars were never seriously challenged as they won 25-11, 25-12 and 25-16 to advance to the semifinals. Melissa Mills had 25 kills in the match, while Castoro added 14 digs. Merrianna Parker added 35 assists.
However, it was the semifinal victory that sent the Lady Cougars into jubilation. Grace recorded another sweep to advance to the final, ousting last season’s defending state champion, Frederica Academy. The Lady Cougars won 25-9, 25-23 and 25-21. Mills and Kelsey Harrell added 13 and 11 kills, respectively.
The victory sent Grace into the championship round against Oak Mountain.
“After we beat Frederica, we were ready to go,” said Mills, who along with Castoro were the team’s only seniors.
“We were a little nervous since they had several players who were 6-foot or taller. We didn’t know what the team was like. But after we earned a couple of points, we felt like we could win this.”
Grace lost the first set 25-21 but rallied to win the next two, 27-25 and 25-18. They narrowly lost the fourth set, getting to match point several times before Oak Mountain won 26-24.
That set up the decisive fifth set, which Grace took 15-12 after a back-and-forth affair, with the team and fans erupting into a wild celebration.
“We had a lot of fans there,” Mills said. “They were all really excited, too.”
Mills finished with 394 kills on the season to lead the team. She also led with 247 digs, while Kendi Castoro and Sarah Castoro added 235 and 215, respectively. Mills and Kaitlyn Holcombe led the team with 60 and 58 blocks, respectively, while Parker led the team with 645 assists.
Harrell said it’s a season he won’t forget.
And neither will Grace Christian.