Over the past several seasons, the Decatur Lady Eagles made strides on the volleyball court in an effort to reach the top of the Class 3A mountain.
Pushing a step farther each year, the team made the 3A Region II final in 2012 before falling to Argyle in five games. Coming just short of the summit of the state tournament only made the Decatur squad more determined.
“Going into the summer our mindset was to do everything to get what we wanted,” said Decatur setter Stormi Leonard. “Our mindset was to get better every time we could.”
That approach was on display throughout the season as they made the march to the top of the peak to stand by themselves as the 3A champions. The Lady Eagles dispatched their District 9-3A competition and then rolled through the playoffs, including an epic five-game match against the squad that had ended their march the year before – Argyle.
After getting past that hurdle, the Lady Eagles kept climbing, reaching the state tournament in November, then completed the climb Nov. 23 with a sweep of Bellville.
“That was the greatest feeling ever,” Leonard said. “All our hard work paid off. We did everything we could and were able to accomplish our goal. There were no regrets.”
The memorable ride to a 41-7 record and the program’s first state title made the Lady Eagles the Wise County Team of the Year.
After their trip to the region final in 2012, Decatur coach Claire Benedict said she and the team had a change in their mentality, with new pressure and expectations.
“I told the girls we have things to work on until the last practice,” Benedict recalled. “It was a long road. But the mental toughness and maturity of this team helped.”
That mental toughness was needed as every team the Lady Eagles faced gave them their best. Benedict also tried to lay out a challenging road for her team in the preseason, scheduling tough matches against 4A and 5A squads and other top 3A teams.
“We tried to schedule tougher matches,” Benedict said. “We surprised ourselves winning some. But it was not easy. We worked hard every day in practice.”
Those tough workouts took everyone on the team and a good mixture of personalities – from the calmness and kindness of seniors Kirstin Nanny, Breanna Quinton, Darci Billmire, Serena Estrada and Katie Isham, to the sternness and fierce fire of the underclassmen.
“We had a large team, and it took every person to get that goal and the state title,” Benedict explained. “It was not just one person. It took a lot of effort from everyone to the players on the court or the ones in practice.”
The Lady Eagles swept through 9-3A, winning all eight matches in three games.
On a nine-match winning streak, Decatur entered the playoffs and dispatched former state powers Aubrey and Bonham in three games each, setting up a third-round matchup with an old nemesis – No. 1 Argyle.
Along with losing the region final the year before to Argyle, Decatur had also been tripped up twice in the regular season by the other Lady Eagles.
“We were tired of losing to them,” Leonard said. “Going in we knew it would be tough. It was going to take everyone on the team and in the stands. We had to win or we wouldn’t ever live it down.”
Benedict added that her team was annoyed by the previous setbacks to Argyle, and it was time for the pendulum to swing in their favor.
Decatur took the first game but then dropped two straight sets to fall behind 2-1.
“When we lost the third set, it felt like a repeat of the previous matches,” Leonard said. “But we said we are not going to let this happen again.”
Makayla Mayfield broke a tie at five with one of her 20 kills in the fourth game, starting a 12-7 run. Decatur took the game with an Isham kill to set up the winner-take-all fifth game.
Decatur jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the deciding game and maintained the advantage at 12-8.
“We believed in the team 100 percent,” Leonard said. “We were rewriting history and not losing.”
At 14-11, Caroline Lowery put down the deciding kill to give the Lady Eagles the signature win.
“Argyle was a great win. In any other scenario, that needed to be the state final,” Benedict said.
“It was a good win. But our girls weren’t done.”
Benedict said the Lady Eagles’ workouts only got tougher after the Argyle match. The determined team then rolled past Paris North Lamar and Longview Spring Hill at regionals to book the trip to state.
The Lady Eagles headed to Garland a day before their semifinal match with Big Spring to check out the venue and ease their nerves.
“Going a day early helped us settle in. It was our first time playing in a place that big,” Leonard said.
No nerves were evident against Big Spring as the Lady Eagles cruised to the 25-12, 25-22, 25-10 win. Leonard dished out 30 assists, and Cooper Martin put down 13 kills. Mayfield added nine.
The victory put Decatur in the final against Bellville. With a huge crowd from Decatur on hand, the Lady Eagles took the first game 25-21. Then Decatur took game two 25-18.
Bellville looked to delay a Decatur celebration in game three, taking an early lead. But the Lady Eagles stormed back to tie the game at 20. Then after Bellville took a 25-24 lead, Decatur put down the final three points to win the match and the title.
Mayfield, Martin and Lowery combined for 33 kills in the match that put Decatur on top. Leonard doled out 33 assists.
“We all bought in,” Benedict said. “The players and the coaches. Just watching the girls get their medals was emotional. It’s amazing how volleyball has changed here in seven years. This is what all the hard work was for.”
Now that they’ve made the climb to the top, the program will never be the same.