Overcoming a humbling 0-4 start to its 2020 campaign, the Evanston High School volleyball team defied outside expectations to compile a 15-9-1 record, including a perfect 6-0 in the 4A West Quadrant.
The Lady Devils went 3-1 in last weekend’s 4A West Regional Tournament, and will head to the 4A State Tournament in Casper Friday as the No. 3 seed out of the West. Evanston lost just one match at home this season (Natrona County at regionals), and, despite being ranked behind Star Valley all year, had a 4-0 record against the Lady Braves.
Not bad for a team that failed to crack the Top 5 in 4A rankings all season.
Along the way, the Lady Devils were required to adapt to a variety of restrictions and protocols due to the global pandemic. Volleyball in the age of COVID requires an unprecedented amount of discipline on and off the court; that teams from all over Wyoming are gathered this week at the Casper Events Center for their respective state tournaments is a testament to each program’s tenacity and dedication to preserving the season.
“I feel very fortunate for us to have this level of success, especially with COVID and how we started off the season,” said EHS head coach Tera Lawlar. “The girls put a lot of trust in me, and I told them after our first loss, ‘Don’t look at the outcome, look at where we’re going. It will come for us, just hang on with me.’ And they bought into that. I don’t know if I’ve had a group of girls be so disciplined in the gym in 20 years. A lot of that is because they’re great kids, but I think they also realize what’s at stake.”
The Lady Devils open the state tournament Saturday morning against Kelly Walsh, the No. 2 seed out of the 4A East. The Lady Trojans finished the season with a 16-6 record, 5-1 in 4A Northeast Quadrant play.
“We’ve watched Kelly Walsh on film — they’re a good team,” Lawlar said. “They’re a young team, but they’re experienced — a lot of their girls play club ball. They have a lot of touches. They know the pace of the game. They’re smart, and they have good ball control; they know what to do with it. We’ve watched film and studied their tendencies, so we feel good about where we are at.”
The 4A State Tournament is going to look a little different this year, thanks to COVID — instead of the tournament playing out over the course of three days, the entire tournament will be played on Saturday. Lawlar said it will be a grind for any team that has their sights set on the championship game Saturday afternoon.
“You can tell we’re not into tournament play like we typically are because of COVID,” she explained. “But we told the girls, ‘Hey, it’s the same for everybody.’ We need to play big when we can, and worry about being tired later. It will be interesting. The girls are in good spirits, they’re excited.”
With the end of her 20th year in coaching now in sight, Lawlar said she can’t imagine a better team to share this milestone with.
“I’m genuinely excited that these girls have the opportunity,” Lawlar said. “I know they deserve to be there. There are years when you feel like you should have done some things differently to get there. This year, this team is doing all the things they’re supposed to — they’re working so hard. They’re going with something to prove, and they’re proud of what they’re doing together, as a team. Kelly Walsh isn’t going to be an easy match, but I definitely feel like if we put it all together and trust in each other, we’ll be competitive.”
“I’ll be genuinely, truly sad when this season is over,” she added. “It’s a very special group.”
Bottling team chemistry
Team chemistry is never a given, especially at the high school level — you either have it, or you don’t. This year’s incarnation of the Lady Devils have been playing together for years, which has definitely contributed to their success.
“I think that this team gets along so well because we all have a common goal and the same mindset,” said junior Emily Freeland. “We all want to get better than we were the day before — individually, and as a team. We work so hard every day in practice, and we all have fun playing together.”
Fellow junior Abbie Rigby agreed.
“When you get to that level of familiarity with your team, you are able to just become comfortable in knowing that they will always have your back,” she said. That makes the game so much easier...I think we are so comfortable around each other that we also know it’s okay to sometimes give some tough love. We know that behind that tough love is our drive to win. We all have one goal in mind and we are willing to do whatever it takes to help in the success of the team.”
It’s often said that players don’t necessarily have to like each other to be successful. That may be, though it’s an issue this year’s Lady Devils haven’t had to deal with. Things may get testy at times, but players are quick to hug it out.
“The biggest thing is we all care about each other,” said senior Taryn Holt. “I would do anything for them, and I know they would do anything for me. They are like family, and I’m so grateful for the friendships we’ve created that will last a lifetime. I love them forever.”
Junior Stacia Barker said, for her, having a familiarity with each other — as well as having a common goal — is what sets the team apart.
“Each and every one of us care so much for each other and the sport, that we all have the same goal in mind,” she said. “I know no one wants to let anyone down, so that results in us pushing each other to be the best that we can. I love my team so much, and I can’t wait to see what will come of us.”
This year’s Lady Devils have faced their share of adversity, as have all of the fall sports teams around the state. From not knowing if they’d even have a season, to strict adherence to restrictions and protocols, teams battled the spectre of the COVID pandemic on and off the courts, fields and pools.
“I believe the most challenging part of this season is the uncertainty of a ‘next game,’” said senior captain Taylor Petersen. “In past years there’s been stuff we can fix for a guaranteed next game, but due to COVID, we could be shut down at any point. If something needed to be fixed, it had to be there and then; there was no option of waiting.”
That said, not all the challenges the Lady Devils have faced have been COVID-related. Senior Kambree Brown said the team had plenty of naysayers, especially after a rough start to the season.
“I feel we have gotten over every obstacle that has been thrown our way,” she said. “I believe that the most challenging part of the season would be overcoming everyone’s preconceived thoughts on how our season would turn out. We sure showed them.”
Junior Mackenzie Porter echoed Brown’s sentiment, stating that early losses served as a gut-check moment for the team.
“Looking back I never would’ve guessed that we’d be so successful,” she said. “The biggest thing that helped us overcome this was how determined we were to be great. Every practice, we raised the bar and pushed one another to be the best we could be. We started to pick up momentum, and formed into the team we are now.”
For senior Allyson Sawyer, the biggest challenge was discovering how she could best help her team.
“The most challenging part of the season so far was finding my role,” she said.”Making sure that I am the best for the team that I can be, and can do whatever they may or may not need me to do.”
Pre-game rituals are alive and well
Athletes have been a superstitious lot since the dawn of competitive sports, and the Lady Devils are no exception. Asked what goes into each player’s pre-game ritual, the answers varied from unique to downright quirky.
“A pre-game ritual that we do is a fun sort of clapping cheer on the court,” said junior libero Baylie Critchfield. “Me and a few other girls on the team picked this up from a club team a few years ago. We showed it to the team and it has just stuck ever since; it is really fun for us all and it helps us get motivated and excited to play the game.”
For junior Kaitlin Deru, a last-minute change in her chewing gum preference created a whole new way of thinking.
“I always chew cinnamon gum when we play,” she said. “I usually have mint gum but I forgot it when we went to Star Valley. We won that game, and ever since then I’ve chewed cinnamon gum.”
Seniors Holt and Brown like to say a silent prayer before each game, as does junior Stacia Barker. For Petersen, it’s eating an unsalted soft pretzel before every home game (she forgot before the Natrona game, and we know how that turned out), while Porter and sophomore Halle Brady find focus with internal pep talks. Sawyer makes a point of handing her jewelry and warm-ups to team manager Allie Pace.
“I’ve done it for every game for the past two years, and without doing it, I feel like something is wrong,” Sawyer said.
Mia Barker double-scratches her shoulders after taking off her warm-ups (as well as seven wall touches with her cousin Stacia), while Rigby wards off bad luck with a pair of special objects.
“I have a lucky hair tie that I have to wear every game,” she explained. “I also have my lucky water bottle that I have to have when we play. In one game, I wore my hair different than I had in any other game, and I personally played my worst game ever. So now I refuse to have any braids in my hair when we play.”