For many teams claiming the sixth-place trophy at the state tournament would represent a banner year.
Bellarmine Prep volleyball, however, is not your typical program.
The Lions saw their hopes of a fourth consecutive Class 4A state crown dashed after losing in the quarterfinals to fellow powerhouse West Valley (Yakima) at the 2015 tournament. The season included the team winning its sixth straight 4A Narrows League title – a huge accomplishment in its own right – but for some things felt incomplete.
“As good as we did, and a lot of teams would have been happy with sixth place, but there was that taste of disappointment a little bit,” Bellarmine coach Caroline Meines said. “I saw the moment from when tryouts started just this renewed energy. When you don’t win it fuels the fire. They don’t want sixth again. They are eager and very hungry to get back to where they were.”
Leading the charge for the Lions this season will be senior captains Claire McCarthy and McKenzie Schwan, both of whom know what it takes to put together a state championship season as each was a member of Bellarmine’s 2013 and 2014 squads which capped the team’s three-peat of titles.
“It’s really important to us to continue this legacy because we’ve worked so hard to build this program,” said Schwan, an outside hitter.
The Lions will not have to wait very long to be tested as they depart the now disbanded 4A Narrows League for the newly designed 4A South Puget Sound League, which features the last four state champions in Olympia (2012), Bellarmine (2013, 2014) and Curtis (2015) and is without question the premier league in the state regardless of classification.
“We have high expectations for this year,” McCarthy said. “We’re trying a lot of new stuff so it’s hard to see where we are at the moment, but we have a lot of great new players, a lot of potential and a lot of enthusiasm.”
All will be needed for any team that wants to navigate through the 4A SPSL as it also features Emerald Ridge, which has finished second in state the past two seasons and third in 2013, and Puyallup, a 2015 state participant.
“There’s no nights off, that’s for sure,” said Meines, who enters her second year as head coach after serving as an assistant for 12 seasons. “I think the team is excited about it though. Claire and McKenzie have been a part of this program for a long time. They know what the standard is. They’ve been waiting to take charge of the team.”
McCarthy and Schwan, whose sister Courtney started on all three Bellarmine title teams and now plays for the University of Washington, entered the program as freshman a year after the Lions secured their first state championship. Two more titles followed with the first season feeling a little more overwhelming to both players before they settled in as sophomores.
“Mackenzie was a lot more put together and calm. I was freaking out as a freshman. I had never played with those types of players before so I was star struck,” said McCarthy, whose mother played volleyball at Bellarmine Prep in the late 1980s. “It’s just such a bizarre experience to go from being a freshman and watching idols like Courtney Schwan from the bench to now having people looking up to you. It’s just an awesome feeling that now you are on the top of the food chain.”
Both are a far cry from the wide-eyed rookies from three years ago.
“They have really grown with their leadership. I think when you’re on the varsity team for four years you get a chance to see a lot of the leadership that came before you,” Meines said. “We’ve had great leadership here and we’ve talked about what they have learned from them. It’s exciting to see them use those lessons and experiences.”
The Lions made their 4A SPSL debut on September 20 by sweeping Graham-Kapowsin, the league’s fifth school to make an appearance at last year’s state tournament.
McCarthy and Schwan both hope it’s the first league victory on the road to another state title.
“There’s no rest this year,” Meines said. “You always go into a seasons thinking you have a strong team, but to win a state title a lot of things have to fall into place. Not just for your team, but for other teams and how they are progressing.”
Bellarmine continues league play at home against defending state champion Curtis on September 27 and close the regular season on the road against Emerald Ridge on October 24. In between those two matches is a slate full of playoff contenders.
“Being through the program and seeing how all the teams have progressed from year to year, losing certain players and gaining others is really good to see for our team,” Schwan said. “I’m just excited to be a part of it.”