St. John’s celebrates championship volleyball season
The St. John’s volleyball team likely was not the favorite for the Southwest Preparatory Conference crown in August.
Defending champion Episcopal and 2017 finalist Houston Christian both returned enough talent to compete for another final. The Mavericks looked to climb from a fifth-place finish at the SPC tournament after finishing fourth in the South Zone a year ago.
But by conference play, the Mavericks were playing as well as anyone. Driven by three five-set victories, including a notable win against the Knights, they earned the top seed for the SPC tournament.
St. John’s completed its undefeated run through league play in Dallas, defeating Houston Christian, Episcopal School and Episcopal for its first SPC championship since 2009. St. John’s finished 27-11 overall.
Shelbi Irvin, in her first year as Mavericks head coach after two years as an assistant, guided a team that made significant progress during the season and defeated several opponents featuring more club players and court experience.
“The first thing I think really helped was our team chemistry,” Irvin said. “The girls really got along inside and outside of volleyball. We also focused on consistency. Last year we were very high-error. Keeping the ball in play and off the floor was one of the biggest things. But it was really about coming together as a group and understanding what everybody’s purpose was.”
While the Mavericks received contributions from all classes, the senior group of Caitlin Ellithorpe, Abigail Hawes, Alexandra Lewis, Lena McZeal and Siena Zerr set the tone of each player filling whatever role was needed.
Lewis, a four-year varsity player, was a key leader at setter and led the team with 871 assists (8.5 per set), adding 223 digs. She finished her career with 2,376 assists.
Lewis, junior Celia Adams and sophomore Nova Manning earned all-SPC honors for their championship contributions. Manning anchored the back row defense with 303 digs (3.2). Adams excelled at outside hitter, leading the Mavericks with 407 kills (4.5) and adding 195 digs (2.1) in a year of vast improvement.
Zerr contributed 254 kills (2.9) and 111 digs (1.2), with junior Savannah Farmer adding 130 kills (1.4). Junior Ana Maria Rodriguez tallied 192 digs (2.1).
The Mavericks probable cast of returning varsity players includes juniors Alexa Addison, Allison Biegel and Eliza Holt, sophomores Emily Biskamp and Reese Ramirez, and freshman Morgan Grace.
St. John’s started 2-7 against some of its toughest competition at the John Turner Classic in Pearland but had some solid victories by the end of August, including a tournament win against Episcopal School of Dallas and at home against Fort Bend Christian.
The Mavericks went 4-1 at the FAST Tournament, including wins against St. Agnes and Houston Christian. They dropped a non-conference match Sept. 17 at Concordia Lutheran, then did not lose again.
St. John’s closed the season on a 12-match winning streak, highlighted by sweeps of Houston Christian, St. Andrew’s and Kinkaid and five-set wins against St. Stephen’s, Episcopal and John Cooper, all in South Zone play.
The Mavericks had not defeated Episcopal in six years and ended streaks against Houston Christian and John Cooper as well.
“All the five-setters were very different,” Irvin said. “We were in control against St. Stephen’s, then had to come back in the fifth set. Against Episcopal, it was back and forth but we had to stuck to our game plan. They have some big hitters and blockers. We knew they were going to make plays, but we had to keep going, keep pushing through.”
While the Episcopal win was momentous, John Cooper made sure a perfect zone season would not come easy. The Mavericks struggled through the first two sets before dominating the rest of the way.
Irvin said those victories prepared the Mavericks for the SPC tournament. They swept their way into a championship match against Episcopal, staving off game point to take the first set 26-24 and ultimately winning in four.
Adams led the attack with 22 kills in the final as Lewis set 45 assists, Manning made 17 digs and Zerr added 15 kills and eight digs. It was the 15th SPC volleyball championship in school history.
“I’m extremely proud,” Irvin said. “This group is really special. We know we aren’t the biggest, the most athletic. But what really shocked me about this group was how much they bought in. It started with the seniors. There was never any pushback.”
The Mavericks’ 10 returning players will have a chance for a repeat SPC crown. The last consecutive volleyball championships by St. John’s were in 1986 and 1987.
“It was an awesome year, but now we’re thinking ‘what’s next?’” Irvin said. “They’re hungry.”