Their season was played under the dark clouds of team manager and senior Alex Depriest’s tragic death from diabetes and the looming teachers strike, but through it all, the Desert Vista High School boys volleyball team kept winning.
The team saved its best performance for last on May 11. Playing in Alex’s honor, the Thunder took all three sets from Sandra Day O’Connor High School to claim the state championship.
“The season was brutal, it seemed,” head coach Clay Webb said. “But it wasn’t as bad as I thought when looking back on it. The kids made it great; every time I came to practice, they had smiles on their faces. They made my job a little easier every day.”
The Desert Vista boys had their heads held high as they gathered on the floor at Gilbert Mesquite High, celebrating a title and keeping Alex’s spirit alive.
Choosing Alex’s favorite color, team captain Benjamin Baldwin wore a pink shirt during the match. It was the same color that filled Desert Vista’s gymnasium a little over a month ago as the team honored her with a touching pregame ceremony.
“That was an emotional roller coaster for us as a team,” Webb said of the April 5 game. “A lot of my seniors were really affected by it. In high school, kids aren’t supposed to lose their friends. That’s not something that is supposed to happen. A lot of the guys were pretty decimated.”
The game that followed the ceremony accurately reflected just how much of a toll the circumstances had taken on the team. The boys, winners of its previous seven games, lost convincingly to Highland.
Webb thought his team beat itself that night.
“I was nervous for that game, to be honest with you,” the coach confessed. “The boys were super-emotional before the match. We let our emotions get the best of us.”
After watching his team rely too much on adrenaline and lose control in the two matches immediately following Alex’s passing, the coach had to remind them of her advice.
As team manager, Alex would constantly tell the boys just how talented they were but that they needed to stay disciplined for an entire match. If they stayed disciplined, there was no team that could beat them, she would tell them.
Webb agreed with the sentiment because his roster is filled with talent. And the coach believed his team had the players capable of making a championship run.
And when Webb reminded them of what their 17-year-old manager used to say, the Thunder went on a tear.
The boys responded by not losing another game outside of the two-day tournament held at Brophy, nailing a remarkable 12 wins in a row.
Desert Vista was still feeding off emotion, but the boys were playing with their heads instead of their hearts. Webb’s group took all three sets from Highland three weeks later and lost a total of only two sets throughout the postseason.
The top-ranked Thunder rode that energy all the way to the state championship game. Sandra Day O’Connor had beaten them twice earlier in a season-opening tournament.
But the second-year head coach remained confident in his squad.
“We talked about it at the beginning of the year – our goal is to hopefully get to the championship game,” Webb said. “I told them to practice every day like it is the championship match. The guys bought in on it and worked their tails off every single day.”
“The level of focus the week of the playoffs was off the charts,” Webb added.
The emergence of Dapre Rogers and leadership of Baldwin helped Desert Vista get over the hump during the title game.
“He’s one of those players you want to be your captain,” Webb said. “He was somebody you could point to and show someone how they should play on the court and how they should act.”
Fueled by Baldwin’s relentlessness and Alex’s memory, the Thunder – an already tight-knit group – was brought even closer.
“It was something that gave the guys another spark to push themselves even harder in practice,” the coach said of Alex’s sudden death. “The guys were wearing pink. We just kind of dedicated the season to her. It was neat to see them elevate themselves to a higher level.”
Just as Alex had told the boys, there was no team in the state that could defeat them when they were playing their A-game. That statement was true in the final match against the Eagles.
“Everyone in the volleyball community came up and gave us a congratulations and a big hug,” Webb said. “That was a really neat experience, something I’ll never forget.”
-Contact Brian Benesch at 480-898-5630 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZBenesch