HANCEVILLE – The three-peat is complete.
Wallace State's No. 19-nationally-ranked volleyball team won the program's third consecutive Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC)/Region 22 state tournament championship late Sunday night, beating Gadsden State 25-20, 31-29, 27-25 in an intense title match at Beck Field House on the Gadsden State campus.
This state championship may be the sweetest of the current three-year run after Wallace State battled Gadsden State for nearly five hours. The Lions (42-3) overcame their first loss of the season to an ACCC opponent in Sunday's first match, losing in four sets before rebounding to sweep the Cardinals in the most crucial match of the season.
"A lot of teams would have folded the tent after we lost the first match, but for us to come back, step up and finish strong shows the true character of this team. I'm extremely proud of my girls," said Wallace State coach Randy Daniel, who was named ACCC/Region 22 Coach of the Year. "Our sophomores always have a lot of unfair expectations because it gets harder and harder to win each year off the tradition and expectations we have built. I had athletic directors from opposing schools telling me it was our time to lose this tournament. It's crazy how the pressure mounts the more you win."
As ACCC/Region 22 champs, Wallace State advances to the NJCAA Division I national tournament, which is set for Nov. 17-19 at West Plains, Mo. It will mark the 12th national tournament appearance for the Lions.
Wallace State opened the tournament Saturday with victories over Snead State and Gadsden State, earning a bye to Sunday's championship. Gadsden State fought through the elimination bracket to set up the title bout with Wallace State for the third straight year.
Of the seven sets played between the two rivals Sunday, only two were decided at the 25-point mark, and neither team maintained more than a seven-point advantage throughout the day.
"It was unbelievable and something like I've never experienced before. I had never played in a state championship before this and can't believe how crazy it's been," said Wallace State freshman Erica Baker, who was named ACCC/Region 22 MVP for her regular-season efforts. "It was a very tough day. Gadsden State has nothing to be ashamed of. We picked up our intensity the second match and played our hardest when we needed it most."
Baker, a Hazel Green grad, was named MVP after leading the conference in hitting percentage (.604) and blocks (101) and finishing second in kills (326).
Joining Baker on the All-Region first team were sophomores Lesley Bemis and Callie Miller and freshman Brooke Beasley. Sophomores Kris Lawson and Amelia Moore and freshmen Jessica Coombs and Bekah Myers were named to the second team.
Wallace State was strongly represented on the All-Tournament team as well. Beasley, a setter/hitter from Winfield, earned Tournament MVP honors, finishing the four matches with 138 assists, 27 digs and 21 kills. Baker, Bemis and Myers were also All-Tournament team selections.
Wallace State's ability to win its third straight title was also aided by a deep roster, whether it was Athens Bible's EA Shaver providing quality minutes off the bench, Coombs fulfilling multiple roles or the team's sophomore leadership.
"We always say were only as good as the last person on our team and when it came down to it we had players who stepped up and saved us. This entire team is made up of fighters. Even when Gadsden State beat us the first game, we knew we would pull it out. We never doubted," said Lawson, a graduate of nearby Gaston and one of the Lions' six sophomores. "It was just a matter of playing with a little more intensity and knowing we were the better team and playing like it."
Sophomores on the team are Lawson, Miller, Bemis, Moore, Caelin Light and Kaydi Langley.
In his fifth season at Wallace State, Daniel has now compiled a 195-31 record with four straight undefeated regular seasons in conference play and three state titles in a row.
"This one means a lot. You are proud anytime you can win a championship, but the way we did it meant so much after Gadsden State hit us in the mouth during the first match," Daniel said. "Things happen for a reason in this sport, so maybe we can build on that and become better players for the national tournament."
Rounding out the Wallace State roster are freshmen Erica Wicktora, Maegan Belcher, Hannah Gunn and Amelia Meinhart.