‘America’s Team’: West volleyballers reach state semifubak

West Henderson volleyball

By Pete Zamplas

West Henderson volleyball flexed its championship pedigree by winning the lofty Western Mountain Athletic Championship tournament, after sharing the WMAC regular-season crown.

The five-time state champion Lady Falcons (32-3; 15-1 WMAC) then went on a playoff run into November, reaching the 3A state semifinal round in one of their most prolific seasons in years.

The dominant Lady Falcons had a .914 winning percentage. They paced WMAC teams with a 94-17 mark in games (AKA “sets”). They very impressively swept foes in 25 of their 32 victories. They were ranked 120th nationally, and fifth in the state according to MaxPreps.

The Lady Falcons won 19 matches in a row over a two-month stretch. They won four playoff rounds at home, lastly on Saturday, Oct. 27 then Oct. 30.

Two days later, they bowed out in the West regional final at Marvin Ridge in suburban Charlotte on Thursday, Nov. 1. The West Region top-seeded Lady Mavericks (43-3) swept second seed West by 25-15, 25-22 and 25-21. The Mavs then lost the state title match to unbeaten D.H. Conley (27-0), two days later on Nov. 3 at N.C. State. Had West reached the title match, it would have played six playoff matches in 12 days with most every other day.

Casey Brown Slam. Senior Casey Brown (14) unleashes a kill shot. Teammates include America Anderson (30), Darby Fisher (13), Malia Moore (10) with her hand by her hip. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

West began its 19-match win streak after losing on Sept. 6 to Reynolds, the usual WMAC champion, but avenged that on Oct. 4 with a 3-2 comeback on the road. ACR took the first two games by 25-22 and 25-15. But West roared back 25-12 and 25-22 to tie it, then cruised 15-7 in the finale.

That handed Reynolds (22-4; 14-2) its first defeat after 1 19-0 start. West catapulted into a tie with the Lady Rockets atop the WMAC, then into first alone five days later as ACR was swept at Roberson. It also set up an inevitable showdown in the conference tourney finals. West won that match in a 3-0 sweep (25-15, 25-16, 25-12) on Oct. 18.

The tourney title sparked a playoff surge. The Lady Falcons disposed of Alexander Central (25-12, 25-21, 25-13), T.C. Roberson (18-25, 25-16, 25-7, 25-19) and Charlotte Catholic (25-21, 25-14, 25-27, 25-22). They then spooked third-seeded Jesse Carson Cougars (25-10, 25-11, 25-11), on Halloween Eve Oct. 30. Meanwhile, ACR was ousted in 3A’s round two.

West “served” notice that Henderson County is to be reckoned with in various sports, in WNC’s premier conference. This is the second academic year for both West and North Henderson in the all-3A WMAC, after competing in what is now the all-2A Mountain Six.

West volleyball is perhaps Henderson County high schools’ premier athletic program over the last three decades or so. Tiffany Lowrance has been head coach for this entire decade, taking over in 2010 at age 30 from her retiring mother Jan Erickson Stanley. Jan started the program in fall of 1975.

Tiffany was a varsity assistant starting in 2002, and thus has been a guiding force in the program for 17 seasons. Tiffany (West Class of ’97) was a Lady Falcon setter (passer), and also played basketball for her mother.

Lady Falcons Sianna Gordon, at left, and America Anderson (30) form a double wall of defense to thwart Charlotte Catholic in round three.  Photo by Pete Zamplas.

“She’s very knowledgeable about the sport, and knows how to handle and motivate the girls,” Jan Stanley told The Tribune of Tiffany when passing the coaching torch to her eldest daughter. Tiffany has carried on West’s winning tradition, and in her own right is ascending into local sports lore.

Tiffany Lowrance told The Tribune after the last playoff triumph that “have fun” is her ultimate message. They pushes the team in practices to develop and hone skills. In huddles during matches, she will “fire them up” as needed.

But she often eases up and avoids pointing out mistakes, especially in late-match pressure situations. This helps players relax, catch their breaths, then concentrate once play resumes. She reasons that “they can’t be tense” and fear mistakes too much, or they will play too tentatively and worse. Instead, she said, “they focused, and limited mistakes. They handle tough situations well.”

She said her crew played extremely well as a team, better as the season progressed such as in “moving feet” to get in position. This enabled them to more accurately “dig” to return serves or hits, to block shots such as with a double wall at the net, to pass (“set”) and smash slams (“kills”). Players specialized in such skills, but interchanged roles as needed on the fly.

This athletic squad has rather average height, with a trio of six-footers and three others at least 5-10. “Defense wins championships” is a sports motto. West has diligently begun practices by practicing blocking shots. Anticipation of ball movement and timing of leaps and arm extension is crucial.

In the finale in the state semi, strong 6-0 senior Casey Brown led West with 11 kills. She added four digs. Junior Katrina Kordonowy made six kills, and sophomores Malila Moore four and America Anderson three along with 3.5 blocks. Senior setter Darby Fisher amassed 17 assists, while senior Ashley Downer came through with 17 digs to retrieve opposing shots and keep West in points.

West sports a fine mix of veterans and emerging talent, with seven seniors, six juniors, and three sophomores on the 16-player varsity roster. Co-captains are the seven seniors — Brown, Fisher, Downer; Sianna Gordon, Abby Jackson, Claire Johnson and Grace Neve. Juniors are Kordonowy, Bailee Ashe, Addison Hichman, Bailey Lance, Kinsley Morgan and Claire Stansberry.

Hopes shine for two more seasons, with the three high-leaping sophomores. Daija Jackson was also on varsity last season, as a freshman. She and Anderson, who are both 6-0, typically took turns as the middle blocker. Anderson had 156 kills and 128.5 blocks in 35 contests, averaging 4.46 and 3.67 per match. Jackson also surpassed 150 kills.

America has such a following among West student fans, that they often cheer “USA! USA!” for her and her teammates. The nickname of “America’s Team” a la the Dallas Cowboys in pro football is more appropriate next season, as she is a year further into her career.

The thriving student section made home court even more advantageous, said both Coach Lowrance and WHHS principal Shannon Auten said. Auten lauded the “awesome support” match after match, from a cluster of some 30 students near courtside. Lowrance said the vocal backing further energizes players, and reflects “school pride.”

West has much to be proud about in such sports as volleyball. Traditionally, the Lady Falcons play with confidence, no matter the odds or momentum shifts.

For instance, West conquered private magnet school Cardinal Gibbons’ slew of six footers, in the 2008 title match after dropping the opening game. Back then, Coach Lowrance said “anytime we were down or when a game came down to the wire, we always pulled together.”

Then-head coach Jan Stanley recalled, “We never gave up. We didn’t let down. We stayed focused. We capitalized on (Gibbons’) mistakes.” She noted her top teams through the years “showed a lot of heart, and found different ways to win.”

Earlier this year, Jan Stanley was inducted into the WNC Sports Hall of Fame. The 1971 Hendersonville High School (HHS) grad was already in the N.C. High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. She won five state volleyball titles at West. She repeated as state champion twice, first in 1990 and 91 then in last decade as she won three state titles in six years last decade — in 2003, ’04, and ’08.

West finished undefeated in each of those seasons, and in ’04 swept all foes in three straight games. Stanley first reached the state title match back in 1984, when Apple unveiled the historic Macintosh personal computer. She also won a girls’ state basketball crown with West in 1991, and coached that sport for 17 years.

She won more varsity volleyball matches than anyone in state history. She won nearly 700 times in 35 years, averaging nearly 20 wins per seasons. She was 698-116 (.857) in a sensational career. She set that state mark in 2009 with win number 658, and ended 41 wins better than the prior record-holder. After the record triumph, confetti showered West’s home court as players presented Stanley with flowers and a charm bracelet.

“Pride!” was among her players’ battle cries after breaking from huddles, reflecting the winning tradition and close-knit atmosphere of West volleyball.

Stanley was named National High School Coaches’ Association national high school volleyball coach of the year and co-coach of the year, for the 2008 season. She started West’s volleyball program in fall of 1975. She retired in early 2010.

Her husband Paul Stanley and their son Jason Stanley have helped coach HHS varsity football. Youngest daughter Brooke Stanley has coached HHS volleyball. Brooke was a star setter for West in 2003-06. She sparked two state title squads with middle hitter Jessie Sims, and was ’03 finals MVP. Another star West player who went on to coach locally was Elizabeth Pippin-Phillips, who has lifted up East Henderson volleyball.

All four Henderson County volleyball squads had winning marks. East under Lauren Ashe went 17-10, including 8-2 to finish third in the M6. The Lady Eagles won the M6 tourney over top seed Brevard (21-6; 9-1) in finals, then won one playoff match.

Hailey Cook coached HHS to 16-12, and 6-4 for third in the M6. The Lady Bearcats won three 2A playoff matches, starting by edging Brevard 3-2. HHS also dealt BHS its sole M6 regular-season defeat. Sue Moon’s North Lady Knights went 14-12, and 7-9 to finish an impressive fifth right in the middle of the tough WMAC.

The county’s unofficial champ, Wes,t was 4-0 versus the other three local teams and won all games. The Lady Falcons swept North twice, and East and HHS once.

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