LEXINGTON -- The pressure is finally off the Bishop England volleyball team. At least until next season.
The Bishops defeated Gilbert, 23-25, 25-18, 25-13, 25-16, Saturday afternoon to win their 12th consecutive Class AA volleyball state championship and 22nd overall. The 22 titles tie the national mark held by Burris High of Muncie, Ind., for most state titles, while the 12 in a row is fifth on the all-time list for consecutive state titles.
"Every one is just as special as the first one," Bishop England coach Cindy Baggott said. "It's a different group of girls every year. We have to start from scratch and find the chemistry and see what works. We always hope by November we have it figured out."
It seems by the first weekend in November, Bishop England always has it figured out. The four seniors on the team were in the first grade when this current streak of state championships began, and this team routinely played with four sophomores and two juniors in the regular rotation, so the future looks bright.
It was the fifth title for Baggott. The Bishops' first volleyball title came in 1977.
Ellie James, the Class AA player of the year, watched her older sister win four state titles, and she put her stamp on the championship with a dominating performance.
The junior had 24 kills, 11 digs, seven blocks and five aces. Her ace on the final point started a dogpile in the center of the court.
"It feels pretty amazing," James said. "Our team has improved dramatically since the beginning of the season. I'm so proud of how well we've done. We started off a little rough, but we fought through it and played our hardest."
This was the third time in four years that Bishop England (24-7) has knocked off Gilbert (22-4) in the championship. Gilbert coach Jackie Shealy knew her team had to play its best if they were to overcome their nemesis.
"One thing we couldn't do was make a lot of mistakes," Shealy said. "The thing that Bishop England is known for is not making a lot of mistakes. They had some strong hitters and smart play. They have a good program down there."
The Bishops dropped the opening game to the Indians, the first time since the 2004 season that Bishop England had lost a game in the postseason.
"Gilbert came in prepared and played a great match -- hats off to them," Baggott said. "We had to fight for it, and that's what a state championship should be."
That is when the precise passing of Julianne Dahlman and play of James took over. James had eight of her kills in the second game. Dahlman, a junior setter, finished with 50 assists and 14 digs.
Losing the first game was a wake-up call for the Bishops, who took the next three.
Baggott said she's glad the pressure is finally off and the team can celebrate without the focus on making history.
"We try not to focus on the records, streaks and that, but you can't help it when you have the media bringing it up all the time," Baggott said. "This the toughest group of girls I've ever had to keep focused. Again, I think a lot of it has to do with the youth that we have on the floor. It's just been amazing."