Two Lady Devils earn All-Conference honors

Lady Devils Jaylie Critchfield (left) and Kyan Lawlar discuss strategy during a break in the action against Jackson during the 4A West Regional Tournament in Green River last month. Critchfield and Lawlar earned 4A West All-Conference Second Team honors. (HERALD PHOTO/Don Cogger)

Team celebrates ‘23 season at end-of-year banquet

The Evanston High School volleyball team gathered to celebrate the 2023 season last week, handing out team awards, as well as honoring junior Jaylie Critchfield and freshman Kyan Lawlar, both of whom were named to the 4A West All-Conference Second Team.

“It was a good banquet – it was a nice closure to the season, and fun to see the girls one last time before they go off to their winter activities,” said EHS head coach Tera Lawlar. “They voted on awards for each other, and each girl had to get up and talk about a teammate. It’s fun, because you get to see their personality come through. It was a good time.”

Critchfield finished the season with 85 kills, 45 serve aces and 249 digs.

“If our record had been better, I’m sure Jaylie would have been on the first team,” Lawlar said. “She hit 304 assists for the season, and by the end of her senior season next year, she should hit 1,000 assists for her career. She’s stable, consistent – you know what you’re going to get. She’s competitive, and a great teammate. I’m excited for her senior year, and beyond, because she’s so coachable.”

Kyan had a tremendous freshman campaign, finishing with a team-high 270 kills, 34 aces and 254 digs.

“Kyan is a very smart player – she sees the court well,” Lawlar said. “When there needs to be a kill, I feel confident that she knows what she needs to do. She’s ahead of where a lot of kids her age are – she’s going up with a purpose, and once she starts to get more control with the actual volleyball skill side of it, it’s going to be really tricky to stop her. She finished third in the number of kills and eighth in digs, so she was pretty happy.”

The Lady Devils had what could best be described as a rebuilding year, finishing with an 11-25 record (0-6 in 4A SW Quadrant). With just one senior on the roster in Rhyen Debenham, and a handful of freshmen and sophomores who saw significant varsity playing time, coach Lawlar said she knew it wouldn’t be all about wins and losses this season.

“We knew early on this season would be a struggle, as far as wins and losses,” Lawlar said. “But I also knew there was a very good chance we could continue to get better as the season progressed. And we had our share of adversity – Alyssa [Brown] getting sick, and being out for so long, that hurt us more than I realized. Autumn [Neely] and her ankle, that was a setback, and of course, Cassie Barker and her knee. Just trying to navigate those injuries was a challenge, but it was still fun. There wasn’t a day where the girls didn’t come to practice truly wanting to work as hard as they could.”

What Lawlar saw from Day 1 was a group of players who enjoyed being around each other – even when things weren’t always going their way.

“The girls worked so hard, and they truly wanted the best for each other,” Lawlar said. “Instead of worrying about the wins, we really did say, ‘Are we better today than we were the day before?’ And if we could say yes, then we did our job. Then we would do the same thing the next day. Our T-shirts were goofy this year, and we just wanted to grow, and have a good time, so kids would want to come back. I really do love these girls.”

At the banquet, Lawlar talked about the bond the players formed through adversity.

“There’s a Kobe Bryant quote I told them at the banquet, that I’m sure I slaughtered, but it goes ‘You work hard in the dark, so you can shine in the light,’” Lawlar explained. “He’s talking about early-morning practices, but I told the girls the light for them was choosing not to make excuses, or get catty or get ugly with each other when things weren’t going their way. They chose to be good teammates with each other, and lift each other up, and tell each other, ‘Hey, we got this.’ I couldn’t have been more proud of how they handled the adversity.”

“They grew, and they showed their character,” she added. “Knowing I have those type of kids to work with is super-exciting.”

Lawlar praised Debenham for embracing her role as a leader on the team, and – as the team’s only senior – setting an example the younger players were proud to follow.

“Kudos to Rhyen – she was wonderful,” Lawlar said of her lone senior. “She was a great mama figure to those girls. She knew she was a role model – she was around 13 and 14-year-old girls as an 18-year-old, and that’s a big age difference, and she’s like, ‘I understand. I know what my responsibilities are.’ She helped girls with boyfriend problems, all sorts of things. She really came through.”

All of the players came through, according to Lawlar, players like Austin Robertson, who struggled with multiple concussions last season.

“I was a little rough on Austin, but she owned what I gave her,” Lawlar said. “The last tournament day, she got hit in the face hard against Cody, and after she was cleared by the trainer, she got back in the game. For her to fight like that – after her history of concussions last season – to show that kind of grit was amazing. She was so excited after that match that she stepped up, it was incredible.”

The Lady Devils were playing their best volleyball during the final tournament of the season, the 4A West Regional Tournament in Green River. Though Evanston lost matches against Cody and Jackson, Lawlar said the effort displayed by her team in those two losses is what she’ll remember most about the 2023 season.

“My favorite feeling is when I call a timeout – they’re breathing heavy, their eyes are bright and they’re looking at each other with these head nods,” Lawlar explained. “They can’t wait to get back out there. Whether we were losing, or we were ahead against Jackson, they had that look – ‘OK coach, let’s get back out there, we’ve got work to do.’ We’d seen that a few times this season, and the girls know that’s my favorite part. That’s how they were against Cody, and again against Jackson. It was great to see.”