Center Hill’s road to the state high school volleyball tournament this year was highlighted by a strong playoff run, culminated by a 3-1 Class 5A state finals victory over Long Beach in the championship at Mississippi State University on Saturday, on Oct. 26.
The Lady Mustangs swept past Saltillo and Cleveland Central to reach the tournament, then stopped East Central, again in straight sets on Thursday, Oct. 24 to reach the finals.
Within the last few years, MHSAA state volleyball has become a Final Four format and for Center Hill, this was the first time for them to reach the Final Four stage.
In a three-year period from 2007-2009, Center Hill got through the North Half and did reach the state championship but was denied the title each time in the small school Class I division by the volleyball juggernaut that is Our Lady Academy (OLA) on the Gulf Coast at Bay St. Louis.
Of note, OLA won its 14th state championship in Class I earlier on Saturday, Oct. 26, 25-21, 25-21, 25-14 over St. Andrew’s Episcopal of Ridgeland.
In 2012, Lady Mustang volleyball was in the North Half finals but lost to eventual Class II state champion Lake Cormorant.
Center Hill again faced a Gulf Coast school in the Oct. 26 championship at MSU and were not denied this time, taking the title in a four-set match, 25-21, 25-14, 20-25, 25-18. Afterward, coach Robbie Veazey said building confidence has been the key in bringing back the program this year.
“When I came in, these girls didn’t have a lot of confidence and their self-esteem was really low,” Veazey said. “They didn’t expect to win. That’s where I told that they needed to expect to win and this year they bought into it, from the end of last year and this year they were not going to be denied.”
Center Hill’s victory came without the aid of its top player, as DeSoto County MVP Zakhia Taylor went down with an ankle injury in the first few minutes of the match.
“When you have a senior like Zakhia go down you would think that the team might crumble,” Veazey said. “She’s been a leader of this program for a long time. I hated for her to go down in the first set and not be on the court with us.”
The victory brought Center Hill’s record back to .500 at the end of the season at 16-16. Individual statistics on the match were not immediately available.
Following the Center Hill win, Lewisburg (30-12) next took the state finals stage, hoping to replicate the championship in their final match against Clinton in Class 6A.
Against the Lady Arrows, the Lady Patriots had to rally to tie the match a 2-2 after a tense 27-25 victory in set four. However, Clinton recovered to prevail in the final set to 15 points with a 15-11 and a state 6A championship.
After the Lady Patriots won the first set 25-21, the Lady Arrows took control of the match with victories in sets two and three, 25-20 and 25-19.
Lewisburg trailed set four by 10-4, but came back to tie the set at 20-20 before winning 27-25.
The Lady Patriots couldn’t take control of the decisive fifth set, however, as Clinton forged a 9-3 lead. Lewisburg would rally back to get within 10-13 but the Lady Arrows got two of the last three points for the championship.
“Our kids really battled back,” said Lewisburg coach Allison Burchyett. “We dug ourselves a hole in set four, but we battled back and won set four and pushed it to set five. We expended all of our energy to get it to set five and we didn’t have much left. We laid it all on the court and that’s all a coach can ask for.”
Micah Swift led Lewisburg with 19 kills and Avery Beth Durdin added 17 kills. Swift served the only two aces of the match for the Lady Patriots and Londyn Bakeris made 25 digs. Morgan Lee offered 36 assists.
VOLLEYBALL ETC.: Vancleave, which last year stopped Lake Cormorant for the Class II state title, this year was dropped to Class 4A, but won another state title. Vancleave defeated New Albany 3-0 for the Class 4A championship.
The 2019 season was the first year for Mississippi to expand into four classes, Class 6A, Class 5A, Class 4A and Class I. Last year, the sport was divided into Classes I, II, and III.
Saturday’s championship for Center Hill also marked the first time for a DeSoto County team to win a state title since 2015. That is when Lewisburg won the Class II title and DeSoto Central won in Class III in a season that was the final year for a string of seasons when a county team had taken home a title. That streak started in 2006.
Bob Bakken is Sports Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.