Over the past six years few programs can match the success of the Decatur Lady Eagles on the volleyball court.
The team has captured five district championships, won every district set and match the last four seasons, made two trips to the region quarterfinals and in 2012 they reached the region final.
This year’s journey was historic. It was the farthest any Decatur volleyball team has ever advanced, and the coach who led them there didn’t even come here to coach – it just ended up that way.
In her six years at Decatur, Claire Benedict has built a volleyball powerhouse. For her work in guiding the Lady Eagles, she earned the 2012-2013 Messenger’s Coach of the Year honor.
The humble coach is quick to give credit to the athletes she has had along the way, and the atmosphere the program has created.
“This has been six wonderful years,” Benedict said. “I really focus on the word family because not only are the girls and I family, their families have embraced me as well. I want them to be able to look back and know this was a family for them.”
Benedict originally came to Decatur to teach, but was appointed to coaching duties soon thereafter. She had been an assistant at Plano the year before and has always coached club volleyball. She embraced the new role immediately.
“I’ve always enjoyed coaching,” she said. “This was more of a, ‘By the way, this is what you’re doing’ job, but I take things and run with it. It’s impacted my life in a positive way. It’s something that I didn’t see coming necessarily, but I can’t see my life the same without it.”
With her system in place the Lady Eagles took off. Benedict has compiled a 190-52 record in six seasons, and she should get her 200th career win early this fall.
“I think something I brought to this program was discipline and respect,” she said. “Respect not only for their coach, but for their teammates and the program.
“They know there are some black and white areas to our program, and if they mess up there are consequences.”
After the disappointment of falling to Abilene Wylie in the regional quarterfinal the past couple of seasons, a fresh start in a new region was just what the Lady Eagles needed in 2012.
“There were expectations with this group to be successful, because of the success the last couple of years,” Benedict said. “We anticipated that we needed to work hard, be fighters and hold traditions from the past teams we had.”
By mid-September Decatur was No. 3 in the state. They had just won the Nocona Tournament for the third consecutive year and knocked off eventual Class 2A state champion Brock.
“I don’t think they understood how good they could be together as a group,” she said. “They battled day-in and day-out as a team. We all had our ups and downs.”
With a 28-3 record the Lady Eagles began district play with a sweep of Sanger and never looked back. They rolled through district again not losing a single set, much less a match.
“The growth has been tremendous,” the coach said. “A lot of girls in the starting lineup weren’t starters before. To step into that role was nerve-racking, but they took it one game at a time. They hate to lose more than they like to win.”
After receiving a first-round bye, the Lady Eagles swept Bonham in the area round of the playoffs which set up a showdown with district rival Krum for a chance to capture school history.
Decatur made quick work of the Lady Cats with another sweep, advancing to the region tournament for the first time in the program’s history.
Facing their biggest post-season challenge, Decatur prevailed in a five-game set over Kaufman in the region semifinal. The win set up a region final match with Argyle the next afternoon, with the winner going to the state tournament.
After winning the first set, the Lady Eagles suffered a gut-wrenching loss in the second game 27-29 that turned the momentum. Argyle went on to win in five, and Decatur ended its season with a tremendous 42-4 record.
“Although we came up short this year by six points, it definitely made us hungry for the season to come,” Benedict said. “Unfortunately the target is on our back now. Last year we didn’t have a target. We have to be prepared at all times for everybody’s best game. That’s what we should anticipate.”
With the loss of only two seniors and the core of her team returning, 2013 looks just as promising for Decatur.
“I want it just as bad as they do,” Benedict said. “I’m not a very good loser. Every coach’s goal is to be in the state tournament and if it’s not you’re in the wrong profession.”
Benedict has not only built a program of proven winners, she hopes to instill some life lessons in her players too, before they leave for graduation.
“I not only focus on teaching these girls the game, I try to show them what it’s like to be a woman in this profession and in life,” Benedict said. “I hope they learn how to be a good person, someone who takes initiative, learns how to fight their own battles and can stand up for themselves.”