Story and photos by Lynn Ramsey
Look back to an early-September matchup against Alachua Santa Fe, and few expected Bishop Kenny to stand atop Class 4A’s Mount Everest. Allison Cavanaugh and Alexis Chin carried the Crusaders past Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons 29-27, 25-18, 17-25, 25-20 Sunday in the Class 4A state volleyball finals at Suncoast Credit Union Arena.
Bishop Kenny (21-8) added its third state title to a trophy case that includes 1999 and 2014 volleyball crowns. The Crusaders also denied Cardinal Gibbons (7-4) from adding to their state-record haul of 20 championships. Both teams were in their first final since 2015.
Cavanaugh posted a match-high 19 kills, while Alexis Chin set up 37 assists for the Crusaders.
The Crusaders all talked about a 25-10, 25-16, 25-17 loss Sept. 9 to 4A power Santa Fe in their second match of the season as a turning point.
“If you would’ve told us at the beginning of the season we were going to win states, I would’ve laughed,” Chin said. “I would’ve laughed in your face.”
Yet they continued facing tough competition, including another loss to Santa Fe in a September tournament until they were ready to return the favor in the region finals. Bishop Kenny won that match in a marathon 3-2 battle. Crusaders coach Suzanne Winkler said that considering Santa Fe’s recent history against Bishop Kenny – three region final defeats – the Crusaders’ regional final victory was a miracle.
“True underdog story,” Winkler said. “It started with the Santa Fe game. I think they had their first miracle. From that moment on, they believed.”
That crucible prepared them for the test of wills in the Class 4A final. The first three games all had several ties. The Crusaders’ blockers began asserting themselves, getting an Ashton Dilts-Laura Roskein block to win the first game.
Then Tina Nika’s served the last four points of the second game with an ace and a Cavanaugh kill. Nika finished with a match-high six aces to go with her match-high 23 digs.
“When I was serving back there, I fought a lot of nerves,” Nika said. “But I knew that I had practiced this so many times. All I have to do is serve aggressively, and let the other team be chaotic with the serve. I’m just going to do my job.”
Nika’s serve ignited an 8-0 fourth-game run that put the Crusaders up 20-10. Cardinal Gibbons rallied back to 22-20, but two Gibbons errors and a Bailey Chin kill clinched the title for Bishop Kenny.
Bailey Chin had 11 kills, while Dilts had six blocks.
The serve helped neutralize Cardinal Gibbons hitter Dylan Andrews, who had 10 kills. Setter Valeria Lozada had 31 assists for the Chiefs, who did not play until Oct. 2 due to the Covid situation in South Florida.
Cavanaugh and the Crusaders hitters succeeded despite a Cardinal Gibbons front line that posted six blocks. Cavanaugh said communication allowed the Crusaders to adjust to the Chiefs’ blockers.
Cavanaugh also said that she and Alexis Chin had to learn each other’s patterns. That bonding took place through lots of practice. “At the beginning of the season, it was rough, she was my new setter,” Cavanaugh said. “We bonded so much. Our connection came out through this game, and I am blessed to have her as my setter.”
Just that the team had a season at all was a miracle in itself due to Covid-19. The Crusaders’ season started a couple weeks late with little offseason. That made winning a state title even more of a feat.
“Everyone through this journey, through quarantine, through the ups and downs, it’s a truly amazing feat for these girls to come this far,” Winkler said. “It’s a true underdog story.”