Pickens girls claim first volleyball title since 2014 in romp of Aiken

By Bru Nimmons
Staff Reporter

COLUMBIA — For Rikki Owens and the Pickens Blue Flame volleyball team, playing in the state championship was nothing new heading into Saturday’s Class 4A state championship.

The Blue Flame won the Upper State title to advance to the state championship game every season over the first four years of Owens’ tenure as Pickens head coach, but had fallen in all four of those state finals prior to this year’s matchup with Aiken.

On Saturday, the Blue Flame finally got over the hump, cruising to a 3-0 win over the Fighting Green Hornets at Dreher High School in Columbia to bring Pickens its first volleyball state championship since 2014.

“It feels great,” Pickens senior libero Bailee Earnhardt said after the win. “This is my fifth trip, and it’s just wonderful to finally bring home a gold medal instead of a silver one.”

For Owens, the win is the pinnacle of an already highly successful tenure at Pickens, a school that boasted 15 previous volleyball state championships, and a moment to relish after nearly half a decade of falling just shy of her lofty expectations.

“It means everything to me,” Owens said of the state championship win. “It has been five hard years, because the expectation is so huge — you come in and you’re expected to win championships.”

The big win was business as usual for Pickens this season, with the team not losing a set since before the beginning of region play, including an astounding 12-0 run through the playoffs against some of the best teams the state of South Carolina had to offer.

According to Owens, the expectation remained the same even going into Saturday’s state championship match.

“We’ve done every drill in practice and looked at every scenario there could possibly be,” Owens said of her team’s preparation. “I told them to quit talking about it and shut up and actually do it, and they did. (Legendary Dorman head coach and Owens’ mentor) Paula Kirkland says ‘All gas, no brakes,’ and that’s what I told them. We’re not going to lose a set — we’re sweeping them in three.”

The Blue Flame took that message to heart, according to Earnhardt, and were extremely confident from the start.

“After the past four years, when we stepped on this court today, we knew what was going to happen,” Earnhardt said.

Even in the game’s opening minutes, the Blue Flame were just as commanding as Owens expected them to be. With all-state junior setter Lauren Dow serving and senior middle hitter Caroline Lucas patrolling the net, the Blue Flame jumped out to a 5-0 lead and never trailed the rest of the set, taking it 25-17.

In the second set, the Blue Flame ran into trouble early and trailed 8-2, forcing Owens to call a timeout. The team responded by battling back to tie the game at 10-10 as sophomore setter Hannah Campbell assisted Dow. From there, Pickens took control, winning the second set 25-19 to move to within a set of the 16th state championship in school history.

“With how hard we practiced and everything we’ve overcome this year, we knew we had to finish,” Earnhardt said.

It looked like the set may go down to the wire early on, but when senior defensive specialist Ali Pace started serving for Pickens up 8-7, it was the beginning of the end for the Hornets. The Blue Flame scored eight straight points as Pace served, and the lead continued to balloon the rest of the way, giving Pickens a 25-11 victory and a 3-0 sweep of Aiken.

With the win, Owens joins the ranks of the legendary Peggy Anthony and Jennifer Gravely as a state championship-winning coach at Pickens, but she is most proud of the fact that her team is the first Class 4A champion at the school since Anthony’s 1994 squad.

“We have eight strong seniors and we worked our butts off,” Owens said of her championship team. “We don’t have one star or two stars on this team. We have 16 stars on this team, and whether they made it on that court or not, they all had a role to play.”