Liberty sweeps Gray Collegiate for first state title berth since 2014

By Bru Nimmons
Staff Reporter

LIBERTY — Nearly ten years removed from Liberty High School’s state championship loss to Bishop England, Red Devil head volleyball coach Carla Simpson and her team had a chance to make it back to the championship against fellow upper state finalist Gray Collegiate Academy and fulfill a pact made between Simpson and senior libero Kayden Elrod back in 2014.

“The last time we were at state, I have a picture of me and our libero Kayden Elrod when she was a just little thing,” Simpson said. “We’ve always said that we were going to make it back there before she graduated.”

When the final whistle blew in the Red Devil’s 3-0 upper state championship win over the War Eagles, the duo got to see their dream come true as Liberty will play in the 2A volleyball state championship for just the fifth time in school history on Saturday against Oceanside Collegiate Academy.

“It’s just so surreal,” Elrod said looking back on that moment with her coach after the Red Devil’s win. “I wasn’t even sure that I’d be playing volleyball still, but I’m here and I’m very excited.”

The Red Devils have every reason to be excited with their upper state win marking the culmination of an eight year odyssey to return to state including a rough stretch which saw the Red Devils miss the playoffs twice in a row while they were members of the 3A classification in 2018 and 2019. This year’s senior class came into Liberty High School as freshmen on that 2019 squad and Simpson is proud of the fight and determination the group showed as they won three consecutive region championships to end their career and made it back to the championship game.

“I have been telling people all year, these girls just don’t have any quit in them,” Simpson said. “They are going to fight for every little piece of it and even the ones aren’t always necessarily stand out players will come out and make a standout play. Everything starts with these girls and their hard work and what they’re willing to put in.”

That hard work was on display from the start against the War Eagles as Liberty struggled to match their height and athleticism in the first set falling behind 8-5. The Red Devils responded by showing their defensive prowess time and time again diving in for digs on swings from Gray’s big hitters and adding crucial kills from Skyler Clayborn and Katelyn Porter to get back ahead of Gray.

” You can’t beat a good defensive team,” Simpson said. “Hustle doesn’t have a bad day. Sometimes talent and swing have a bad day, but hustle will never falter.”

With the advantage, the Red Devils never looked back leading the rest of the way and taking the first set 25-19.

In the second, both sides came out playing like their season depended on it with neither team being able to take more than a three point lead over the other in the set. However, with the set almost complete, Simpson was forced to call a timeout with her team trailing 20-17 and at risk of losing their 1-0 advantage.

“I told the them, ‘They think they’re going to come out here and they’re going to take it from us, but they don’t know that we’re not scared of being down three points. We’ve been down more than that and fought back from more than that several times this year,'” Simpson said.

Liberty took the message to heart with back to back kills from Elrod and Porter closing the gap before a hit out of bounds from Gray’s Julia Maybach tied the game at 20-20. With Elrod serving, the Red Devils sandwiched an Anna Belle King kill between two aces and having seen their three point lead turn into an equal deficit, the War Eagles shot themselves in the foot on consecutive points to give Liberty the 25-20 set win.

“It was just about believing in ourselves and battling,” Elrod said of the set. “We knew that we could do it and we wanted it more than they did.”

Up 2-0, the Red Devils responded with their best play of the night in the third set as Gray’s spirits had seemingly been broken in the second set collapse. Leading by as many as 14 points throughout the set, the Red Devils punched their ticket to state as Teagan Owens assisted Clayborn on a kill for a 25-11 win.

With the win, the Red Devils will now face off with defending 3A state champions Oceanside on Saturday morning at 10 a.m. With a win over the Landsharks, Liberty would become just the second public school to win the 2A state championship this millennium.