MURFREESBORO -- After sweeping through both the 2019 and 2020 Class A volleyball state tournaments, it was almost a given that Summertown’s Lady Eagles would do so again once they reached Friday’s championship of the 2021 event at Siegel this week -- especially once they’d survived a five-set winners bracket finals clash Thursday against cross-county rival Loretto, which promptly lost its next match against South Greene.
Instead of celebrating a three-peat, though, their reign came to a dramatic but disappointing end at the hands of the perennial East Tennessee tourney participant.
In five sets, the Lady Rebels claimed their first state championship -- after four runner-up finishes and 13 straight tournament appearances.
“It’s not the way we wanted it to go, but somebody’s got to win, somebody’s got to lose,” said Andrea Kelly, after Summertown concluded its seventh state tourney in eight years and wrapped up a 43-5 campaign. “I can’t think of one play that lost the game. We just had moments when we stepped out (mentally) and we’ve done that all year. They just had a lot of highs that we had a hard time stopping them.
“We fell a little short, but we feel good about what we’ve done and the program we’ve built, and it’s not me, it’s the girls. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
For senior hitter Katie Burdette, the ending was a familiar one. After breaking South Greene’s serve to make it a one-point deficit at 14-13 in the decisive set, she rotated to the back row -- which meant she was pulled for McKenzie Runnels. The Lady Rebels’ final score came with Burdette, the 2019 tourney most valuable player, on the bench.
“The same thing happened in basketball,” she said, referring to Summertown’s state title game loss to Loretto back in March. “I fouled out with six minutes left, so I had to sit there and watch it. It just happened again. I wish I could be out there, but I can cheer from the bench. That’s all I can do.”
Things didn’t go easily when Burdette was on the floor, as South Greene (41-4) focused on her defensively.
“Our game plan was to be able to slow down Burdette,” Lady Rebels coach Stephen Gregg said. “She’s a great player, and they’ve got exceptional players to go with her.”
“When they put the three blockers up on her, I knew she was going to have to do something different,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to hit into three blockers, I don’t care what kind of hitter you are. That made it a little tighter. Where she was able to score early on, she had a hard time scoring after that. That’s just the way it goes.”
After dropping the first set 25-23, Summertown rallied with back-to-back 25-16 wins but struggled to close. South Greene forced the fifth game with a 25-15 victory.
Following the winners bracket final that the Lady Eagles survived (19-25, 25-22, 20-25, 25-8, 16-14) Thursday over Loretto, the drain may have caught up with them.
“Going five games, back-to-back, two days in a row … We’re kinda young,” Burdette said. “We have four seniors, but … others are kinda younger. I feel like, at the end of the day, we weren’t mentally there. … At the end of the day, you want to give it your all and you’ve got that barrier of your own mind.
“I felt like, the 10 a.m. game, playing five games (Thursday), took a lot out of us.”
Thursday took its toll on Loretto as well, as the Lady Mustangs bowed out in three sets against the same South Greene team that they had swept the day before.
“I think we came out a little flat, because we’d beat them 3-0,” Loretto coach Nick Quillen said regarding the losers bracket final contest. “Whether we verbally said it or not, I think we thought it was going to be another walk to the championship and clearly it wasn’t. We had some rallies to fight back, but South Greene really stepped up.”
Loretto (40-10) had navigated that path last season, losing to Summertown in the winners bracket finals but defeating Sale Creek to force the title game rematch.
Thursday’s loss to the Lady Eagles was Loretto’s 14th in two seasons.
“I absolutely believe that’s the best match we’ve played against them (this season),” Quillen said. “I think in the back of our minds from the beginning until now we still saw them as ‘the state champions’, instead of just getting out there and playing. Our attitudes and everything was completely different from any other match we’ve played them this year. We believed we were going to be there with them (Friday).”
Through their disappointment, Quillen and Kelly virtually echoed each other in the aftermath.
“It was a premature ending to the season,” Loretto’s fifth-year coach said. “I’m still proud of the team and they should be proud of themselves. This is the best record they’ve had since I’ve been here. Our only losses, other than Summertown, were to (Division II-A champion) Battle Ground Academy, (Class AAA third-place) Cleveland, Deschler, which was in the top 16 in 4A in Alabama, and South Greene.
“Our record and who we’ve played shows there’s plenty to be proud of, even though we didn’t get that goal we wanted of another state championship.”
“I couldn’t ask for harder-working kids,” Kelly said. “We played the hardest teams you could play. A lot of those double-A and triple-A teams that are in those finals, we played them this year.
“It is what it is. We’ll be back next year and give it another go.”