The long wait is over for the Taegu American Warriors girls volleyball team.
Led by the spiking of senior Lynnette Grant and the all-around play of junior Kadijah Parker, the Warriors girls volleyball team swept a pair of weekend matches in Seoul, one on the court, the other by forfeit, to run their record to 11-0 and give them their first outright regular-season title in the 33-year history of the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference.
“This team has come a long, long way,” said Jennifer Sharp, a former star setter for Seoul American in 1991 and ‘92 who has served as Taegu’s assistant coach the last few years and took over the head-coaching reins this season.
Previously, the Warriors had shared just one league championship, with Seoul American and Seoul Foreign in 1999, when Taegu American also battled injuries to finish second in the Far East Class A (small schools) Tournament.
But most years, Sharp says, the team has been its own worst enemy. “Taegu always fell apart, goofed off at practice, never took it seriously enough and they just expected to lose” to larger-school powers Seoul Foreign and Seoul American.
“We have worked hard to change that at Taegu,” Sharp said. “It’s a different atmosphere these days. No more fighting on the court, no more continuous self-destruction. They are girls who love to play the game and are at practice every day to work hard, have fun and win.”
The Warriors swept the season series from both teams, including Saturday’s 10-25, 25-10, 25-21, 25-19 triumph over Seoul American, coached by Sharp’s old mentor, Denny Hilgar.
The night before, Taegu suffered its first on-court loss, falling 15-25, 25-23, 25-23, 20-25, 15-12 to Seoul Foreign, but the Crusaders later vacated the victory when it was discovered they had used a junior varsity player in a varsity match after playing in the JV contest, a violation of KAIAC rules.
That match “may have been the best thing to happen to us, a blessing in disguise,” Sharp said, adding that the team played with fire the last three sets the next day against Seoul American. “All I know is, the girls never want to feel that kind of pain again.”
Taking the lead in the championship drive were two established veterans and a gaggle of new players who have surprised and pleased Sharp with their efforts.
Grant has racked up 121 spike kills in 295 attempts, 38 block points and 54 defensive digs and fellow senior Kelli Cox has 57 kills in 154 tries plus 59 digs.
“Grant has grown to love this sport more than she could have imagined,” Sharp said. “And Cox, our captain, does more for this team than she even knows. She experienced the (bad) part of Taegu history.”
But Parker’s all-around play (37 blocks, 58 defensive digs), along with the rise of sophomore setter Courtney Hallenbeck (102 assists) and supporting cast members Christina John and Hannah Oh were unexpected surprises.
“Kadijah is just an amazing passer and blocker,” Sharp said. “Courtney just continues to surprise me in pressure situations. (Oh) has the best potential. I see a big future for her. Christina plays with all heart, gives me 200 percent on the court.”
That cast could make some serious noise at next month’s Class A tournament at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, where Taegu finished third a season ago.
“Solid coaching, talented kids, believing in each other,” Hilgar said. “I know for a fact they are a better team than the one in 1999. So they should be in the finals.”
Hilgar expressed pride in his former protege. “It’s great seeing someone you help teach the sport of volleyball pass it on to others with the same love and enthusiasm.”
Given the fact that players such as Parker, Oh, John and Hallenbeck should return, Sharp feels the league title could be the start of something big.
“I think we’ll be tough next year, too,” she said.