For the Sneads girls’ volleyball team, one moment during its captivating run to the FHSAA Class A state title last weekend encapsulated the whole season.
When one player accidentally lost a front tooth moments before a regular season game as a result of a freak volleyball hit-the-face moment, the response was comical, then pleasantly unexpected.
“Of course, the question came, ‘Can you play?'” Sneads coach Sheila Roberts explained about sophomore setter Logan McCord’s dilemma. ‘Yes, coach, I can play, I just can’t take any pictures.” That was her exact response, which I had to laugh.”
And as a sign of team unity, the rest of the team, led by unlucky culprit Ashlyn Roberts, went back in the locker room and blacked out the same tooth, choosing solidarity over solitude.
“They all played with ‘gaps’ in their front teeth,” Roberts said. “That just is typical of that group. They really love each other and it really shows.”
The Pirates breezed to their school’s first state title in volleyball, sweeping Bethlehem (Bonifay), Blountstown, winning a four-set match over Newberry and then sweeping Baker in the title game.
Senior Logan Neel, Roberts and sophomore Emily Glover all recorded over 200 kills during the year, while McCord averaged 36 assists per game and sophomore Mallory Beauchamp blossomed into the defensive specialist role with which she was titled. Everyone contributed, and three seniors, also including Mallory Daniel and Shelbi Byler, urged the youngsters along.
“They were some of the best leaders I’ve had in my 10 years at Sneads,” Roberts said.
“They did an excellent job all year just leading by example. They’re very easy to get along with. This group of girls, one of the reasons I think they’ve done so well is because they do get along so well.”
The special season — Sneads hadn’t had a state title in 20 years prior to this one — started during the summer when the Pirates went to the University of Florida team camp in July and won their tournament division. They hung out in dorms, nowhere to go but get to know each other.
“It’s a time where they can work out any social issues they might have, but at the same time come together as a team, and show me on the court where we’re gonna stand,” Roberts said. “It gives me an idea how to get started back in the gym.”
Once back, the talented group of players had begun to gel, rattling off seven wins to start the year on the way to a 24-8 finish. It’s not always easy to set aside personal issues that can derail potential, but Sneads managed to do so.
“I tell my players, parents, managers, injured players, coaches, your negative energy can sabotage the success of this program,” Roberts said. “I believe that fully. I believe everybody– the fans– has a responsibility to bring positive energy to the gym. When that happens, I believe great things happen. That’s exactly what happened to Sneads this year. We made school history.”
Roberts is philosophical when it comes to coaching, continually emphasizing the process over the result.
“Stay within each point, within each set, within each match,” she said. “That was our focus. Even when we got to the state championship match, we tried to maintain that thought process. I talk a lot about the psychology involved, and I think that’s such a huge part of the game today.”
The Pirates stayed consistent with the message and were handsomely rewarded for it. The result was staggering, receiving an outpouring of admiration from a close-knit community, which welcomed a dash of hope in its daily life.
When the last ball hit the floor against Baker, securing point No. 25, the final point to win on the season, the elation from Roberts and her players started a slow drip that still continues.
“I’ve been working 23 years to try to win the last game of the season,” Roberts said. “One thing about athletics is most everybody’s last game is a loss. Only a few end their season with a win. I never got to do that until this season, and it is an extraordinary feeling.”