A curious thing happened when the Colorado Springs Christian School volleyball team stepped off its pedestal.
The sport became fun again.
“It’s like every little point is a victory,” second-year coach Jennifer Evans said. “Because the odds are totally against us at this point.”
This is CSCS. If the Lions rally to win the 3A state tournament this weekend, it will be the program’s seventh title in nine years. No program in the state can match that run of success.
That’s how opposing teams across Colorado still view them, but a peek behind the curtain shows that the volleyball team is facing the same hardships at the school that have befallen several other programs.
This year the football team dropped down and competed in 1A. It had a respectable season, but 6-4 at that level is a far cry from 9-2 in 2A just two years ago.
The boys’ soccer team went 49-5-1 from 2008 through 2011, but dropped to 7-8 this year.
The struggles at the private school are a clear result of a prolonged economic lull, and the once-mighty volleyball program felt the strain.
“Every year we had 35-plus girls in the program, so we could kind of pick and choose and take the best,” said Evans, who was an assistant under Mike Broekhuis for the last of the team’s six consecutive titles in 2009. “Last year we had 32 – we had more girls on the volleyball team than they had in the football program. I really thought we would keep up our momentum. This year we went down to 22. I knew at that point we would be kind of bare bones. And we were.”
The depth grew thinner when three players – including setter Morgan Evans, the coach’s daughter and the last on-court link to the program’s dynasty – went down with injuries. The shuffled lineup forced the Lions to play four freshmen in regionals, where one loss would have meant the end of the season.
But here they are, back at state.
Led by new setter Mariah Evans – Morgan’s freshman sister – the Lions rallied past Colorado Academy in five games in a thrilling regional final. Mariah Evans had an eye-popping 64 assists and 15 kills in the match. Afterward, the coach of Colorado Academy, last year’s 3A runner-up, came out of the locker room to congratulate the freshman before rejoining his dejected group of seniors.
“I’ve been following our team since their second or third state championship,” Mariah Evans said. “I’m really close with the girls who were on that team. They have been my role models. I was on the sideline saying, ‘One day, that’s going to be me. One day.’"
That day came sooner than expected, and it’s been all Evans had hoped for – even more fun.
And this trip to state may come with some real potential. The Lions (18-7) have two victories this year over second-seeded Platte Valley, they are obviously familiar with local rival St. Mary’s – one of the key contenders – and they’ve been tested by bigger schools like Pine Creek and Air Academy.
Still, advantages and disadvantages of playing for such a storied program follow them.
“We’ll go to schools that, quite honestly, we’re either equal to or not even as good as talent-wise, and they have all this anger toward us and they want to beat us because of all of those years,” Jennifer Evans said. “It’s hard for these girls, because they know all that, but they don’t understand it. It’s almost like a mark on our back, and they’re like, ‘Why do they hate us so much?’
“But it’s a blessing and a curse, because they try really hard to uphold it.”
The players seem to have grown used to it.
“No, we’re not that team (that won six titles), but it’s nice to be respected,” senior Taylor Stephens said. “I like the challenge. It’s not a bad type of pressure.”
If nothing else, this trip to state seems to be about CSCS finally cutting ties to its past and starting something new.
Where that leads remains to be seen. Stephens is one of four seniors who will be gone after this year. Jennifer Evans may not return, as she is due on Dec. 7 with her family’s fourth child, something of a surprise as their current youngest is 12.
The group of freshmen seems too competitive to allow the program to fall into the kind of decline that has hit some of the school’s other teams, but who knows?
The bigger picture just doesn’t seem so important to the team. They’re playing loose and as though they’re for once free from the burden of expectations, and that’s what makes them a dangerous team this weekend.
“To win state knowing that it wasn’t that legacy of girls, those amazing, extremely talented, extremely tall girls; to just be your average Joes and accomplish something like that,” Stephens said. “That would be outstanding.”