The Vibe Tribe: How Principia Re-Wrote the History Books on Saturday

“Well, if this is it then we’re going down swinging”

Deep into the 4th set of a Saturday slugfest with defending conference champions Greenville, Principia’s junior captain Sophia Hathaway muttered the game changing words to herself as Allyson Mitchell went back to serve with her Panthers leading the set 19-13 and the game two sets to one.

Having already played 4 hours of volleyball at this point in the day and with their backs to the wall against one of the best D3 teams in the nation, it appeared as though Principia had given everything and was set to come up short. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be today.

At this point, watching from behind the baseline with notepad in hand and heart pounding, I began wondering how I was going to formulate a recap of the day’s events after what was shaping up to be a sobering 4 set loss to Greenville. I mean, 300 wins for head coach Mary Ann Sprague is cool, but that would sure feel a bit muted after a loss like this.

A Devon Marunde serve broke my train of thought and snapped me back into the game at hand just in time to watch Principia neatly tidy up a Greenville swing and return fire with one of their own. On that very same point, with Principia now down 19-14, a thunderous kill courtesy of Sophia Hathaway would begin a defining comeback that encapsulated September 30th, 2017 and cemented its status as one of the greatest days in Principia volleyball history.

……….

A week before Saturday’s events transpired, I was approached by assistant coach Heather Fairbanks with a proposition. “Next Saturday should be Mary Ann’s 300th win up at Eureka” she told me, “and I think you should be there to cover it.”

Me?

An event like that?

Seriously?

I’m all in.

Over the week between that conversation and the actual games, I crunched numbers and discovered that yes, Mary Ann would be in line for her 300th win on Saturday morning against Iowa Wesleyan in the first game of a double header that would culminate against defending conference champions, Greenville.

Now, with a potential win over the SLIAC’s other Panthers would give coach Sprague her 301st win, joining Lee Suarez as the winningest coach in Principia Athletics history. For whatever reason, while 300 wins seemed like a formality, that 301st and record setting win was the big number that I had in mind when officially putting together my plans to travel up to Eureka for the magic day.

From the second I walked into the Red Devils’ gym on Saturday morning, I could feel a palpable sense of importance in the air. Something special was set to happen today, but that wan’t meant for just anyone. Today was meant to be Prin’s day, and nothing was going to be able to take that away.

Game 1 was never in doubt.

From the opening serve of the game that sliced its way between two Tiger defenders for a first point ace, Principia set the tone of the day and announced that win #300 for their beloved head coach would not be denied.

Sophia Hathaway convened the matchup with 7 straight serving points, highlighted by 3 aces, while Emily Tippetts further christened things with a game high 13 kills before Cha Cha Fisher adjourned with a game-ending and 300th win clinching kill.

With the entire team possessing the knowledge that coach Sprague was sitting on 299 wins, it just wasn’t possible that they would let a victory over conference bottom feeders Iowa Wesleyan slip away.

“We wanted the ‘W’ either way” said Hathaway after the game, “but knowing that made us want to play even harder.” For a team that, after that historic win, sat at 14-2, playing “even harder” than a normal effort level should be a scary thought for any other team in the conference.

But, for as special as the first game was and for as much history as it made, the main event of the day was still yet to come. Yeah, it was a cool win, but it sure wouldn’t have felt as cool if Greenville had come through and stomped out the fire in Principia’s second game of the day.

And, in game 1, stomp out the fire was exactly what Greenville did.

The orange and black Panthers came out swinging, piling up 17 first set kills, (compared to only 9 for the blue and gold Panthers), en route to a 25-19 victory, doing part 1 of 3 to dampen the Principia mood, still high after that first win of the day.

“To be honest, I think [the first win] made us a little cocky in terms of how our attitude shifted from game 1 to game 2” said Hathaway when asked about the slow start against Greenville.

Set 2 flipped the script.

One of the biggest keys to Principia’s game all season long has been hitting efficiency. The blue and gold Panthers have only lost one set this season when swinging above a .200 hitting percentage and a second set tally of 12 kills and 0 errors soared past that magic number to register a .343 hitting percentage.

Suddenly, after that 25-14 second set win, a would be blowout now felt like an evenly matched dogfight. Winning a set by 11 points over the defending conference champions is helpful within the canon of trying to win a volleyball game, but the second set awoke something inside Principia that they hadn’t had in the first set.

Confidence.

“I think we were apprehensive about competing with them because they have always been a really strong team” senior captain Cha Cha Fisher commented when asked about what changed between the first and second sets. “Once we realized we could play with them and had the confidence to play our game, we came out strong.”

From the second set onward, Principia began showcasing the game that has brought them such early season success so far; phenomenal defensive positioning and digs, scrappiness, scrambling, clever and calculated attacks and reliable serve receiving.

However, after Greenville comfortably won the 3rd set 25-16, the magic appeared to have run out and reality appeared to be setting in. A tired group of Panthers struggled their way through the early stages of the 4th set and suddenly found themselves down 19-13, with hands on knees, desperately in need of a side out against Allyson Mitchell.

……….

In any sport at any level, truly special teams always have signature wins. Whether that be a big upset victory, a significant comeback or a hard fought overtime win doesn’t particularly matter.

As Devon Marunde went back to the serving line with her team down 19-14, I sure wasn’t thinking about how this could potentially be one of those signature wins for a Principia team that, thus far, had won a bunch of games, yet none that I truly considered to be any more special than all the others.

And then the comeback began.

An angry Sophia Hathaway slashed three straight kills right into the heart of the Greenville defense and suddenly it was 19-17. Was this really happening? Was this really the same team that had just had hands on knees, looking defeated and downtrodden while searching for any semblance of offense they could find?

As I kept asking questions, Principia kept providing answers and the score kept getting closer. 19-18, 19-19, 20-19; this was really happening and I couldn’t believe it. Devon Marunde had served the blue and gold Panthers all the way back into this game and suddenly Greenville were the ones metaphorically wobbling on the ropes.

Unsurprisingly, the orange and black Panthers weren’t even close to done, quickly ending Marunde’s magical serving run at 6 straight points, but not before Principia had improbably taken the lead.

In her own words, a team mentality of “do it for her” helped Principia’s sophomore setter calmly put together her game changing serve run. “Oh gosh that was fun!!” Marunde said excitedly before continuing, “when I got back there, all I was thinking about was how badly I wanted this [the win] for our team and how much I was willing to give to get us there.”

After trading points back and forth until the score was tied 23-23, Sophia Hathaway stepped back and served out the set, giving the blue and gold Panthers a frantic and miraculous 4th set victory, tying the game up at 2 sets apiece.

“Going into that 5th set, we didn’t feel relieved or accomplished because we knew there was still more work to be done,” said Hathaway. “But seeing the grit and determination in everyone’s eyes and based off how we won the 4th set, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we would win the game.”

Principia came out firing in the 5th set in an attempt to minimize the drama and make good on Sophia Hathaway’s between-set feeling. 5-1, 8-2, 8-5, 10-8, the score went up and down and did its best to mimic the pulse of my thumping heart while watching the most exciting live sporting event I’ve seen in quite some time.

Much like they’d done all game, the blue and gold Panthers stepped up when it mattered and pulled ahead in the closing points, ending the deciding 5th set on a 5-1 run to seal up a scintillating 5 set win over the defending conference champions.

Signature win does not even begin to describe it. Against a Greenville team that Principia has not beaten since 2008 (yeah, 2008) the blue and gold Panthers were able to buck a seemingly automatic historical trend and squeak out the most crucial win of the season thus far.

Having lost their last 20 games against Greenville, it would have been easy to understand an apprehension or timidness from Principia entering the game. However, as junior libero Mia Gill pointed out, having the confidence to know that they were just as good a Panther team as their mascot counterparts made all the difference in such a tight matchup.

“When we realized that we could not only keep up with them, but play well enough to force them into making mistakes, we were able to take the game and recreate it at our speed,” said Gill when asked about what change allowed Principia to be so successful. “I don’t know man…I just love these girls.”

And therein lies the biggest takeaway from such a historic and momentous day. Above all else, this team loves each other, and that means everything in what has been the best start in the history of Principia volleyball through 18 games.

Of the 9 players that I interviewed immediately after the Greenville victory on Saturday, all 9 mentioned, at some point, their love for team and teammates and how much that has helped the team come together and play so darn well thus far.

The team moniker of the ‘vibe tribe’ continues to show through in every set, every pass, every win. “Hah that came from Emily [Tippetts]” said Gill when I asked her about it. “She always says it whenever we’re in sync together on the court and everything is aligned. Good pass, good set, huge kill…that’s the vibe, man. Also, the fact that Love literally carries our team only adds to the ‘vibe’ idea that we try to emulate.”

With Saturday’s signature win, (yes, I officially have given it the ‘signature win’ label), the ‘vibe tribe’ has now announced themselves as a serious player in the SLIAC. This is no longer a cute story of a happy little Principia team having some early season success, this is a tightly knit, scrappy group of young women who are playing beyond any and all expectations except their own.

“Our team sets such high standards for each other and we know that this is the level of play we can reach,” said junior outside hitter Noelle Shoemake. “Today we just put it all together.”

On a day of destiny, in which a legendary head coach was set to enter the history books, Principia not only set the expected history, but continued to write their own history book.

Here’s hoping that September 30th, 2017 was merely an opening chapter.

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The Vibe Tribe: How Principia Re-Wrote the History Books on Saturday

A Celebration of Principia Soccer’s First Ever State Championship

All Carson Hussey could do was put his hands on his head and stand there with a blank look and a bit of a sheepish smile on his face. “I just didn’t know what to do” he told me today, “It was just almost too much to take in.”

For Principia’s senior captain and center back – who was also part of teams in 2013 and 2014 that were upset horribly in the district final – the feeling of coming up short was all too well known.

But this year was different.

I remember talking with Hussey back in early October about a fundraising event we were planning. Discussing potential weekends that we could put our event on, I suggested the weekend of November 7th – this past weekend. Hussey’s response was typical of the attitude among every player on this year’s team.

“Oh no we can’t do that weekend. That’s the weekend of state, we have to find a different one” Hussey said to me. I looked at him funny and responded, “Carson, come on. Let’s be real here, you guys aren’t going to do that.” He looked back at me and said, “We’ve got a shot, just you wait on it.”

I sit behind the keys of my computer today and proudly say to you, I was dead wrong.

Following a breezy district win, a 7-0 sectional domination, and a nail-biting win in PK’s in the state semifinal, the Panthers had a shot at winning their first soccer state title in school history – and the first state title in any team sport since 1990.

105 minutes into a game deadlocked at 1, senior captain and midfielder Cameron Sellers found himself with the ball on his right foot and junior forward Kaleb Keller making a run towards the opposing goal.

“…we both knew he was going to make a run through their defenders and I tried to give him the best ball I could” Sellers told me when I asked him what he saw on the play.

Turns out, the “best ball” that could be delivered was an absolutely perfect through ball right on Keller’s magic left foot. On two bounces, Principia’s leading scorer cut loose with the same left footed strike that he’s made thousands of times.

This one just happened to have a state title attached to it. And you had better believe Keller didn’t miss.

As soon as the ball slipped past Lutheran St. Paul goalie Harrison Boynton’s outstretched left hand and hit the back of the net, complete euphoria broke loose.

Kaleb Keller celebrates after his state title clinching goal. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
Kaleb Keller celebrates after his state title clinching goal. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
Keller hits a celebratory backflip following his goal. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
Keller hits a celebratory backflip following his goal. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
The Panthers celebrate around Keller after clinching the title. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
The Panthers celebrate around Keller after clinching the title. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch

Keller hit a celebratory back flip and jumped into Sellers’ arms with the rest of the team mobbing the two of them shortly after. The Principia student section, including just about everyone with any remote affiliation with the school, was louder than just about anything I’ve ever heard.

And among all of the chaos and excitement was Hussey, standing with his hands on his head and a sheepish smile on his face, just in complete disbelief of what had just happened. As the rest of the team sprinted over to jump into the student section to celebrate, Hussey simply walked over calmly, before opening his arms up to accept a big bear hug from myself, former Principia center back Nick Klusmeyer, and former Principia midfielder Kaden Keller.

“I was in total shock” Hussey told me later, “I’m still in shock; it just seems too good to be true. It’s still a blur to me.”

Being in the crowd Saturday, I can attest to the description of the game winning goal as a blur. One second I was contemplating our chances in penalty kicks, and the next minute I was bear hugging senior forward George Agai, who looked at me beaming, and said, “We just won a state title.”

To say the least, this title has been in the making for a long, long time.

3 years ago, an extremely talented Panther team won the school’s very first district title, and looked poised to make a deep state run and possibly go all the way. Their state hopes ended in a heartbreaking 1-0 overtime loss to Canton High School; a game in which Principia dominated, only giving up 1 shot on the night, which Canton buried in extra time for the win.

And as I referenced earlier, the past two years have featured talented teams that have been upset in brutal fashion in the district final. So to try and sum up the magnitude that this state title carries – not just for the soccer program, but for the entire school – would be doing a disservice to the team that accomplished it because no words I could ever say will do it justice.

So since I can’t do it, I’ll let Coach Kipp Keller try to do it for me. When asked about his son Kaleb’s state winning goal, Kipp stated, “Whether it’s my son or not, [that was] the greatest goal of my life. It was awesome, and I’ve been around soccer a lot of years. To pull that shot at that time, it was spectacular.”

I’ve been to a lot of sporting events in my young life. A lot of them have been very important sporting events. I sit before you today and will put my hand on the bible in saying that never, in my life, have I ever been a part of something so special and so incredible.

I’m almost at a loss for words trying to describe it all; there were just so many images that moved and inspired me and captured the essence of what had just been accomplished.

There was Hussey, walking slowly over towards the bleachers, a big smile on his face and his eyes close to tears before being buried by the hug of myself, Klusmeyer and the eldest Keller brother.

There was Sellers – along with his fellow captains, Hussey, and Kaleb Keller – lifting the state trophy; a moment Sellers described as, “a special feeling that I will always remember.”

From left to right. Kaleb Keller, Cameron Sellers and Carson Hussey lift the state title. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
From left to right. Kaleb Keller, Cameron Sellers and Carson Hussey lift the state title. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch

There was school principal and former head soccer Coach Travis Brantingham, standing on the bleachers with both arms raised in the air in a triumphant victory pose, his mouth emitting a lion-like roar of euphoria. Brantingham flew in 2 days early from a conference in Milwaukee Friday morning so as not to miss the state tournament; and I feel safe in telling you he won’t be regretting that decision anytime soon.

As I walked out, there was Heather Keller – wife of head coach Kipp, and mother of Kaleb and freshman midfielder Kippy – wrapped in a blanket, tears filling her eyes as she walked over towards where the team was celebrating to hug her boys.

There was Chris Arens – father of sophomore forward Seth Arens – who was talking with my dad when I came up and put two hands on his shoulders, asking him, “how about that?” He put an arm around my shoulders and gave me a pat on the back, completely speechless with a big smile on his face, his heart clearly enveloped in total jubilation.

There was sophomore defender Caleb Grow jumping into the arms of his older brothers Corbitt and Sawyer, screaming with joy as they pounded him on the back in joyous celebration.

Saturday afternoon was a day that will live on forever in the minds of all Principia fans in attendance, and I just can’t truly quantify the astronomical historical significance of this event in the school’s history. Quite simply, as Kaleb Keller said following his game winning goal, “It was just crazy.”

So far this year, a lot of talk around the school has been about how students can make a lasting impact upon Principia. I can safely say that the soccer team has made a tremendous impact that none of us will ever forget.

Enjoy this moment, because something like this may never happen ever again.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

A Celebration of Principia Soccer’s First Ever State Championship