Carly Graham and the Lady War Eagle volleyball team accomplished something that all other sports at Oak Ridge High School (35-6) haven’t been able to accomplish since the popular Roger Holtkamp guided the then 4A War Eagle football team to a Final 4 appearance. Yep, since Oak Ridge was elevated to 5A and then 6A last year, the volleyball team is the only team to make it to the show.
How did they win the UIL Region 2-6A title? Well , if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it right and sweep your arch rival, The Woodlands High School, 25-17, 25-22, 25-18 at Sam Houston State’s Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum. Sophomore sensation, Carly Graham led the Lady War Eagles in setting up her teammates 22 times while serving four aces. Graham was everywhere on the court. Whether Carly was being generous with her pinpoint setting or diving for balls like a young Derek Jeter, she was the straw that stirred the drink for Oak Ridge and has been the entire season. How would you like to have this young athlete’s college future?
Something seemed amiss with The Woodlands (34-6) in the first game as they jumped out like gangbusters and owned the first part of the set. Usually, it takes a couple cups of coffee and an obnoxiously loud alarm clock for the Lady Highlanders to get going at the beginning of the match. The Woodlands faithful were experiencing what a nice change of pace can look like. One problem though… just when The Woodlands was getting comfortable with their new style, the Oak Ridge alarm clock went off and it must have seemed even more obnoxious because when the Lady War Eagles woke up, everything started clicking for Oak Ridge.
The Woodlands got up 14-8 after a Bella Pinton crosscourt missile which brought Oak Ridge coach Tommie Lynne Sledge up off the bench to call a time-out. Whatever words of wisdom she had for her charges must have registered immediately because they scored the next six points, compliments of sophomore middle blocker, Molly Russell as she slammed one home on a nice set from Graham, hit a comebacker for a winner followed by a block that motivated the Oak Ridge student section to stay on their feet for the duration of the evening. Add in three violations and the game was all knotted up at 14. The Woodlands went up by two when Ally Haden sent a smash to the far right corner that was followed by an Oak Ridge violation.
It was at this point when the alleged alarm clock went off for Oak Ridge as they scored 11 out of the next 12 points to put an exclamation point on the set.
The Woodlands came out for the second set on fire again with a lead of 8-2 after senior leader, Grey Kennedy dove head first for a dig that careened off the net, then over it for the point. Oak Ridge fought back and after being behind for most of the set, they tied things up when Raigen Cianciulli sent her second unreturnable serve in a row over the net. Another Woodlands violation put Oak Ridge up for the first time in the set and they would not relinquish that lead for the remainder of the set.
During the huddle in between sets, senior leader Hannah Hickman, an All-American on anyone’s list, fired up her teammates with a more than inspiring speech that could be heard as far as The Farm House restaurant five blocks away. Her words weren’t taken for granted as once again, The Woodlands came out strong to start the third set with two quick points to include a Sophie Walls/Hickman connection. It was nip and tuck until midway in the set when Oak Ridge’s Russell decided to take matters into her own hands with two kills, a dump and a block, all in succession putting Oak Ridge up 20-17.
The Lady War Eagles then sent a serve into the net to make it a two point game. Have no fear, Russell then registered two more kills combined with three Woodlands violations and Oak Ridge was Garland bound.
Sophie Walls led The Woodlands with 25 assists. Colby Quinn had 19 digs followed by Kennedy and Mia Primavera with 18. Hickman led the team with nine kills.
For Oak Ridge, Molly Russell and Brooke Clark had 10 and eight kills in order. Cianciulli took Zamboni honors with 26 digs.
The Woodlands coach, Terri Wade shared her thoughts…
“We didn’t get to compete like we should have. I felt like neither team played their best. The refs called a lot of double hits on the two best setters in the region and it kept both teams from being fully competitive in the regional final. Oak Ridge stayed very calm and collective, but we couldn’t find our chemistry. There were good moments but it wasn’t consistent enough to win the match. That’s part of the game, though. Sometimes beating a team isn’t finding a hole on the court or channeling on the big hitter, but it’s about being consistent and maximizing opportunities. We struggled with using those opportunities tonight. There are five amazing seniors that shared a ton of experience with the underclassmen and made them better. I couldn’t have come into this program at a better time. The seniors were very supportive and showed more leadership than I ever could have imagined from a group of young women. So proud of a team that exceeded my expectations and never lowered them but constantly raising them.”
Victorious coach, Tommie Lynne Sledge was excited for her team: “These girls have heart and passion. They have all season and they had a goal to sweep The Woodlands and they were unsuccessful in doing that in district play. I’m very proud of them. They knew what was at stake in that an Oak Ridge team has not been to a state championship tournament since the football team did it way back when the school was 4A.”
You may be thinking there was an inordinate amount of violations called by the referees. There absolutely was and it killed the rhythm of both teams but it wasn’t lopsided at all. There were 27 in all…14 for The Woodlands and 13 for Oak Ridge. Although the referees appeared to be a bit overzealous with their whistles, you can’t say one team benefited more than the other.
You’ve got to hand it to The Woodlands. With the team coming off two straight state championships losing multiple D-1 players to the college ranks, no one on the planet, save for themselves and those close to them ever thought they’d be playing for a regional final in Mid-November. As the girls came out of their locker room after the match, tears were still streaming down their faces but they were still gracious in defeat knowing that a District 16-6A team was going to the show.
As for Oak Ridge, if you look back at the athletic history of Oak Ridge High School, most of the success is dated back to the 90’s and the first couple of years in the new millennium before they moved up a classification. Since then, Amanda Brimberry’s softball team has always made it at least a few rounds into the playoffs. The baseball team has had some success over the last 10 years culminating in Coach Mike Pirtle’s team making it one step from the show with Luken Baker and company. Former basketball coach, Rob Stewart had the campus jumping when the most exciting team in Oak Ridge sports history (until now) went four deep in the 5A playoffs. Janet Tingle enjoyed success on the volleyball hardwood before Coach Sledge’s current regime. The football team has yet to win a football game above the 4A classification.
However, nothing matches what these Oak Ridge Lady War Eagles accomplished on Saturday night. There have been several Oak Ridge slogans over the years such as Ridge Rocks. Presently, it’s The Rise of the Ridge. Now, seeing as these athletes have made it to the show, The Ridge has most assuredly risen.
The Lady War Eagles aren’t done yet. They have one more weekend of volleyball left at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland next week.
You heard it right, The Oak Ridge Lady War Eagles are going to the show!