By Walter Villa
Gwen Egbert, the coach of Papillion-La Vista South (Papillion, Neb.), said she never talks to her team about perfect records “because you’re never going to be perfect.”
Don’t tell that to Lake Travis (Austin, Texas).
One week after Papio South -- No. 1 in the POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings -- won a state title and finished undefeated, No. 2 Lake Travis will try to accomplish the same feat, with a twist.
Lake Travis (48-0) is trying to reach the finish line without losing a single set all season.
On Thursday, Lake Travis plays Foster (Richmond) in a Texas Class 4A state semifinal. If it beats Foster (38-10), Lake Travis would either face No. 33 Randall (Amarillo) or Pearce (Richardson) in Saturday’s state final.
Besides Lake Travis, three other teams in the FAB 50 are undefeated, but none have gone unscathed in terms of sets. Papio South lost a total of four sets; No. 12 Chaparral (Parker, Colo.) won a state title last weekend, finishing 31-0 with six lost sets; and No. 25 Central Catholic (Portland, Ore.) also won a state title on Saturday with a 33-0 record and three lost sets.
Lake Travis coach Jennifer Kazmierski, like Egbert, doesn’t talk to her team about perfection. But she does admit “it’d be really sweet.”
“As a coach, my aim is just to win the match,” Kazmierski said. “I don’t want to put extra pressure on the girls by talking about not losing a set. But I know for them, as the season has gone on, not losing a set has become their goal.”
Certainly, there have been some close calls, including a regular-season game against Cedar Park in which Lake Travis was down 19-17 before winning 25-23.
But the most dire situation came in the regional quarterfinals against Canyon (New Braunfels). Canyon led 16-7 in the second set before Lake Travis rallied to win 25-22.
“I was pleasantly surprised when we came back to win that set,” Lake Travis setter Katy Beals said.
Kazmierski said it helps that her team is rock-solid mentally.
“They don’t put pressure on themselves, and they don’t get flustered, even when they’re trailing,” she said. “It’s stunning to see.”
It’s probably fair to say that all teams feel pressure, especially when they are closing in on their championship goal.
Papio South players admitted as much last week before they won their second straight state title and extended their winning streak to 82 matches.
“Everyone has really high expectations for us,” Papio South libero Lauren Poulicek said. “Struggling through school and volleyball at the same time, it’s really hard to keep focused on what we want to do.”
Papio South outside hitter Amber Rolfzen and setter Kelly Hunter said the key was how the team reacted to the pressure they faced.
“I think we perform best under pressure,” Rolfzen said. “That’s why we always come out on top.”
Added Hunter: “I think we like the target on our backs. We knew everyone was going to give us their best shot. There was a lot of pressure, but I think it made us better and made us work harder.”
Ron Kordes, coach of No. 3 Assumption (Louisville, Ky.), watched his team win a state title this season, finishing 43-1. He said his team played much better after an early-season loss, a defeat that took the pressure off and allowed the players to play free.
Lake Travis, though, has no such luxury. A loss now and the season would be over.
Just ask No. 5 St. Ursula Academy (Toldeo, Ohio), which had an undefeated season until this past Saturday, when the Arrows lost to Mount Notre Dame (Cincinnati, Ohio) in a state final.
Perhaps the Arrows, who had won 48 matches in a row entering the final, felt the pressure.
“When you start thinking of pressure,” former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda once said, “it’s because you've started to think of failure.”
Then again, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had a different view on the same issue: “A diamond is a chunk of coal that is made good under pressure.”
Now it’s up to Lake Travis to decide how they will be remembered this season. Will an opponent end their dreams of perfection? Or will the pressure they face create a jewel of a finish?
“Not losing a set is a huge goal for us,” Beals said. “At the beginning of the season, we weren’t very serious about (the goal). But after (the) Pearland (tournament), it became more real. We beat a lot of great teams there.”
Asked if she felt pressure to finish the season on a high note, Beals flipped the script.
“I think if I were going up against a team that hadn’t lost a set, I’d be nervous,” she said. “For us, it’s just about having fun.”