DENVER | As easy as the Cherokee Trail volleyball team made winning the state championship look on the last day of the Class 5A state tournament, it was the exact opposite of the season itself.
From the very start, the Cougars faced the type of off-court adversity that might have ended the championship dream for most teams with the death of a beloved teammate and the loss of another key player to injury, yet there stood coach Terry Miller’s team with the state championship trophy in hand at the end.
Cherokee Trail players and coaches paused in mid-celebration of their decisive three-set victory over Fairview in the 5A state championship match Saturday night and pointed in unison toward the heavens, a tribute to late teammate Celeste James, who died before the season and gave them a greater purpose than they could ever have imagined for the season.
“Before this season started, a lot of people told us that we were the favorites, that we were going to go undefeated and be able to be nationally ranked,” recalled senior outside hitter Shannon Webb, whose monster finish sealed the Cougars’ cathartic 25-23, 25-20, 25-19 victory over the Knights at the Denver Coliseum.
“When we lost Celeste, we thought we had lost that,” she continued. “I think at the same time, our goals never changed, which was pretty cool, and it showed the strength of this team and that we didn’t give up.
“We did it for her and we did it for a different purpose, which makes it more special.”
With the addition of the elite James — a former Thomas Jefferson star who joined Cherokee Trail after a season training and studying abroad in Slovenia — and the further development of uber-athletic volleyball newcomer Amazing Ashby, the C0ugars became a buzzsaw over the summer.
They won the loaded Cherry Creek and Northern Colorado tournaments and looked every bit a state championship favorite.
Then they lost James suddenly to an undisclosed cause of death and a few weeks later found themselves without Ashby, who suffered a catastrophic knee injury during warm-ups for a match.
Miller had absolutely no idea how his devastated team would respond with the season seemingly on the brink. All the Cougars did was complete the best season in school history.
Cherokee Trail finished 25-4, won its first Centennial League volleyball title, produced the program’s first win in a match of any kind at the state tournament in five all-time trips and capped it with its first 5A state championship.
Even half an hour after his team had won the championship, Miller remained flabbergasted. He still couldn’t believe all that had happened in the last four months, both good and bad.
Nothing in his two decades of coaching could have prepared him for any of it, especially the result.
“I can’t believe they did it,” Miller said. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ll be stunned for weeks. After everything that happened, I still can’t grasp how we were able to stay together and how we were able to stay together as one team, no matter what. The resiliency of this team is spectacular.”
Miller credited team parents, the Cherokee Trail administration and the Cherry Creek School District for the support systems that helped the team.
But most of it came down to how the players themselves responded. They hurt inside for the entire season — and continue to hurt — but leaned on each other and used volleyball to push them to new heights.
“We played for our girl and we know she’s up there looking out for us,” junior outside hitter Kenzie Hendon said of James. “I’m so happy that she was a part of my life and a part of this season, even after she was gone. She means the world to us.
“This is so amazing especially after she passed and then two weeks later we lost Amazing to the knee. We could have just given up, we really could have, but the fight in this team is amazing. I’m so proud to be a part of it and so proud to accomplish the goal we set from the very beginning despite all of our setbacks.”
Said senior Libero Mehana Fonseca: “Even when we lost our girls Celeste and Amazing, we still had them with us. They are still with us no matter what. Even if they aren’t on the court, they are still with us in our hearts.”
The emotional component aside, when it came to play during the state tournament, the Cougars simply had a deeper, more well-rounded team that truly “owned the moment” and never allowed opponents to make many runs at them.
After winning its pool with victories over Regis Jesuit and Cherry Creek on the first day of the tournament, Cherokee Trail players had to sit in the stands for five hours as the rest of the pool play matches and two lengthy tiebreakers were completed.
“It took forever, we were so antsy wanting to play,” junior Mollee Picchione said. “We watched all these other teams get to play and we were in the back corner waiting for our chance. It was all worth it, though.”
Indeed the delay had no affect on the Cougars, as they dispatched red-hot Denver East in three games in the semifinals, then just minutes later had to enter the floor with the finalists in the Parade of Champions before they were back on the floor playing again in the final.
Miller said he only scouts Cherokee Trail’s opponents the day of the match and always concentrates on his team rather than who it is playing. The Cougars were loose, relaxed and ready to play and they showed it.
“This year has been all about us, we have shirts that say ‘Us,’” junior setter Robyn Krause said. “We focus on our side and we control our side and we let everything else happen how it happens.”
Webb certainly proved the most effective weapon with 17 kills in the championship match, but Hendon finished with seven — including the winners on set point in the first and second sets — Londyn Johnson added five and Leah Van der Sanden contributed two, as Krause spread the ball around.
Just as importantly, Fonseca (the team’s emotional compass) racked up 19 digs, Hendon 16 and Emily Longnecker 11 and the Cougars kept coming up with steady play that prevented Fairview from getting any real momentum.
Cherokee Trail shone bright in the spotlight, much to Webb’s delight.
“I’ve been here four times and it’s intimidating, but this time we weren’t afraid,” Webb said. “I don’t know what it was, maybe we had somebody looking out for us.”
The Cougars graduate Webb, Fonseca and defensive specialist Victoria Petry, but return a junior core of Hendon, Krause, Picchione, Johnson, Van der Sanden and Longnecker.
“The sky is the limit for us next year,” Hendon said. “We’re losing Shannon, Mehana and Victoria, but you never know. Just like this year, it’s crazy and anything can happen. Absolutely we’re going after it next year.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel