Watching the Chipley volleyball team warm up Saturday, I had my doubts that Baker could beat the Tigers in the Region 1-1A finals and advance to the state final four in Kissimmee for a second straight year.
Chipley looked bigger and more athletic. And the gym’s echo from the Tigers hitting the ball as they practiced their kill only strengthened my doubts.
When Chipley won the second and third sets to take a 2-1 lead in the match, I started thinking of how I would approach a season-ending story about the Gators coming up one win short of a return to Kissimmee. But I should have never doubted the Baker players’ heart and determination.
As is often the case in most sports, the Gator volleyball team doesn’t have the biggest or most athletic players. There are good athletes on the team, but the Gators were smaller than many teams they faced this year.
What the volleyball team has is a rare sense of confidence in the concept of team, trust in each other and the knowledge that you don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest to win. What the team lacks in size and sheer athletic talent it more than makes up for in volleyball smarts and an unwavering will to win.
I should have known that, as I have seen so many times before that just because the Gators were down against Chipley, they were far from out.
With the season on the line and the hope of another run at the elusive state championship slipping away, the Gators did what they do best: they dug deeper.
Yes, the Tigers hit the ball hard, but the Chipley hits turned to Gator points and when the match ended, Haley Wagner turned in a career-high seven blocks, and her cousin, Alex Roy, hustled up 13 digs.
A team lacking a superstar played with one heartbeat. Hartley Moate, Savannah Risen, Jordan Linzy and, of course, Katie Wickery all stepped up their games as the Gators won the fourth set to tie the match at 2-2.
Then, as Chipley Coach Jerry Corbin said, the championship experience of the Gators took over and they won the fifth set to earn a return trip to Kissimmee.
The Gators play in the state semifinals at 1 p.m. Thursday against Lafayette, the team they lost to in the championship match a year ago.
I don’t know what kind of size or athleticism Lafayette has, or how hard the Hornet players hit the ball. And I don’t know if the Hornets would wow me during warm-ups.
What I do know is, win or lose in the semifinals or the finals, something special about this Baker volleyball team will allow the Gators to give it their all and never give up — no matter how long the odds against them seem.
I wish the Gators well at Kissimmee; but in my book, every player and coach associated with the team already is a champion.
Randy Dickson is the Crestview News Bulletin’s sports editor. Email him at email@example.com, tweet him @BigRandle, or call 682-6524