After getting pushed just a tad in the semifinals, St. James Academy left no doubt on Saturday at the Kansas Expocentre as to which volleyball team was the best in Kansas 5A.
Taking on defending 5A champion St. Thomas Aquinas, the Thunder boomed its way to an impressive 25-16, 25-7 victory for the 5A state title, avenging a loss to the Saints in last year’s championship match.
“This meant a lot,” said St. James senior Jenna Gray. “We have a lot of seniors. We wanted it so badly. We knew if we stayed us, we could do it.”
St. James finished the season 46-1, and the senior class led by Gray and Audriana Fitzmorris concluded their high school volleyball careers in style. Gray and Fitzmorris showed why they are headed to Stanford on volleyball scholarships.
But the Thunder didn’t have a near-perfect season only because of two players. Every St. James player who stepped on the court played a role in the win, particularly senior libero Kathleen Reilly.
“She is one of the unsung heroes of our team,” Gray said. “We couldn’t do anything without her passing, there is no way. She deserves a lot of credit because she was playing out of her mind.”
Aquinas, which had an impressive 5A tournament run as the No. 7 seed, couldn’t solve the puzzle of Gray and Fitzmorris. Throughout the match, when Gray received a pass, she consistently made perfect sets for Fitzmorris to put away.
And when Gray wasn’t making sets, she was putting away points of her own.
“We have a big senior class,” St. James coach Nancy Dorsey said. “They knew what it was like to be here last year and walk off the court and not winning their final match of the year. I know they wanted it so badly.
“I am incredibly proud of them. I love these kids like they were my own. I know they are all going to go on and do great things.”
Aquinas managed to stay with the Thunder for a while behind the hitting of senior of Regan Pittman.
But St. James simply had too much fire power, building a 23-13 lead in the first set. Senior McKenzie Kraft had her moments at the net in helping the Thunder expand its lead. The second set was basically a coronation of St. James volleyball dominance.
“This is incredible,” Reilly said. “We have such a support system around us. We worked our tails off to come back with one goal in mind, and that was to win a state championship.”
The Thunder has won state volleyball titles in seven of the last eight years. The first four were in Class 4A.
Aquinas, 33-10, appeared to have plenty of momentum entering the championship match. The Saints easily defeated Newton 25-15, 25-14 in the semifinals.
Meanwhile, St. James needed to work harder to win its semifinal match 25-22, 25-22 over Shawnee Heights.
Thunder was just saving its best for its last match of the season. Once St. James extended its lead in the first set, it played at an extremely high level the rest of the match.
“It was kind of surreal,” Dorsey said of the last set. “Aquinas is a great team. We play them five or six times a year, every year. For them to know an opponent and have an emotional connection with an opponent and come out the way that they did is something special.”