Kennedy High girls volleyball team walked into the gym for their first game of the season clad in brand new bright red jerseys, that arrived an hour before the game. The team’s new coach has never played volleyball and many on the team were still untested, but in spirit they were well prepared to face their cross-town rivals Richmond High.
Gathered on the court just before the game, the cry rang out through the gym, “Eagles! Eagles! You know!” The crowd, filled with mostly Kennedy supporters, lined the court to high-five the girls.
The Oilers, in their own huddle on their side of the court, shouted right back: “1-2-3! Oilers!”
And while the back-and-forth cheers may have resulted in a draw, someone had to win the actual game. In a long, hard-fought match that went to a tie-breaking fifth game, the Oilers pulled off a three-game victory Tuesday, prevailing 25-22, 25-15, 9-25, 20-25, 15-9.
The Oilers started fast, winning the first two games and appearing poised for a sweep. But the Eagles wouldn’t be grounded so easily.
“Don’t give up on the ball,” Eagles’ Head Coach Lisa Schaaf told her players after the second game. “Focus out there. We got this!”
Schaaf’s encouragement seemed to rouse Kennedy, which rallied with two huge wins to send the teams to a fifth game.
As Kennedy slammed the final point of the fourth game, the boisterous crowd jumped to its feet and started dancing in the stands, chanting, “Eagles! Eagles! Eagles!”
Minutes later the girls squared off across the net and locked eyes with one another, staring each other down while waiting for the first serve. The room went silent for the first time all night.
Rachel Lee sat in the stands clutching her hands in her lap. With one daughter, Rachelle, an Eagles captain, and the other daughter, Mia, an assistant coach for the team, Lee was rooting heartily for an Eagles’ victory. Volleyball, she said, runs in their genes.
“I used to play in high school and I love the game,” she said.
She said she’s seen her daughters not just learn the ins and outs of the sport, but grow personally since practice started.
“They have someone taking them seriously and they take themselves seriously too,” Lee said.
The coaches from both teams looked on nervously as the fifth game started. This is Schaaf’s first year, and Richmond Head Coach Steve Phan is in his third year coaching at his alma mater, where he played from 2005-2008.
Phan mostly sat quietly on the sidelines during the game, watching his team execute the plays they discussed between games and at timeouts. But as the match point flew over the net and hit the floor, Phan jumped out of his seat and cheered the Oilers’ victory.
“The did pretty good,” Phan said, adding, “They started to scare me at the last minute.”
The Eagles started to walk off the court with their heads down as the Oilers celebrated. Schaaf intercepted her team, brought them together for a cheer and told them immediately, “We are making progress.”
“Yes, it might not be the wins we want to see,” she said. “But focus on the positives.”
Focusing on the positives is something Schaaf started working on with the team early in the season.
“Before we even started practicing we all got in a group and started talking about our goals,” Rachelle Lee said. Those goals, she said, include, “To have fun, be a team, come together and have positive spirit.”
The Eagles and Oilers will face off again Oct. 4, this time on Oiler’s territory, and Phan said he is looking forward to another competitive game. “I wasn’t expecting this. It’s going to be a good year.”