BAKER — Seated in her chair along the sideline in the Baker School gymnasium, Kathy Combest was subdued. Fans and players milled about the court in front of her, some offering condolences while others quietly made their way to the exit.
She had almost cracked it. In her fourth year back helming the Baker volleyball team, Combest had almost figured out Sneads and gotten the Gators back to the state title game for the first time since 2013.
The Pirates were still just too athletic for a true rural team like Baker, sweeping the Gators 25-16, 25-15, 25-13 in November.
“I felt like we didn’t play our game,” she said afterward. “They’re a good team. You have to come prepared every time. I felt like we were prepared, but you never know what they’re gonna do when they come in.”
In now five straight postseason meetings, the Pirates have won all 15 sets they have played against the Gators, often using their superior size to simply outmuscle rural Baker.
It’s frustrating, said Combest, the Daily News Small Schools Volleyball Coach of the Year, considering the Gators spent much of their regular season playing teams in higher classifications to prepare themselves — a season they dominated with a 20-10 record that included 58 set wins.
“I am proud,” she said. “I just knew we played big teams this year — and those were our only losses, really — just to get ready for them.
“But I’ll just keep working. I got one more year.”
That’s good news to her team, said Afton Adams, the Daily News Small Schools Volleyball Player of the Year. Although Adams, a senior, is bound for Combest’s alma mater, William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, next year on a volleyball scholarship, she credits Combest with most, if not all, of the Gators’ success.
“She really knows how to explain the game a little bit deeper,” Adams said. “She shows you the movements, but the words she describes it in, it makes so much more sense. And she’s always behind us, pushing us and making us do better because she knows that we can.
“She pushes us to our limits.”