Perfection is the holy grail in sports. There is no better way to ensure your legacy than to not lose a game.
In volleyball, perfection is especially hard. A sport built on momentum and point streaks has a way of sneaking up on even the most superior and efficient on the floor.
That's why what Lake Travis (Austin, Tex.) senior Amy Neal and her teammates are doing is so remarkable. The Lady Cavaliers head into Thursday's Class 4A state final four in San Marcos, Tex., boasting a 48-0 record. But that number, while impressive, doesn't tell the whole story. Lake Travis has yet to drop a single set in 2011.
For those keeping score at home, that's 131 straight sets won. If you include last year's state championship sweep of Brenham and the final three sets of a semifinal win over Richardson Pearce, it's 137.
It gets better: Not a single one of this season's sets was decided by tiebreaker. Many of the wins have come against larger schools. And now just six more sets stand in the way of a second consecutive state championship.
"It wasn’t our main goal in the beginning never to drop a set," Neal says. "But the more we kept playing and not losing, we got excited and decided to make it a goal."
And who could blame the team for not coming out of summer practice with the goal to never lose a set? That's the sort of goal that piles pressure fast enough to drown the best of teams.
"It’s been unreal. I can’t even believe we’ve done it. But the girls have done a good job," says head coach Jennifer Kazmierski. "The goals were to win all of our tournaments, win our district and win state. So [going undefeated] was never something we addressed as a team. It’s something the kids talked about, and that I get asked about a whole lot, but it was never a goal. But if we achieve it? Phenomenal. That would be incredible."
Kazmierski pauses, then continues.
"But with two matches left, I don’t care how we do it, as long as we win."
Lake Travis has won a lot since the 2008 season, when the Lady Cavaliers reached the state semifinals for the first time at the 4A level (there are five classes in Texas, getting larger with each number). Neal, an outside hitter, was a freshman then, making her varsity debut in the playoffs. It was a big stage for a fresh face, but it never seemed to intimidate her. Four years later, the University of Texas commit still isn't rattled by big moments.
One of the biggest this season came in the third round of the playoffs against New Braunfels Canyon. Down 16-7 in the first set, Lake Travis was staring down the barrel of not only its first set loss, but a 1-0 hole to start a match.
"That was the biggest deficit we’ve had this year, but the girls kept plugging away," Kazmierski says. "It just took one big play. Amy had a big kill, and then Sierra Patrick followed with a few more and we were out of it."
Lake Travis went on an 18-4 run to win the set 25-20 before sweeping.
"I called for the ball," Neal says. "I asked for it before the point in our huddle because I wanted to give our team some momentum. I was ready get a kill and help out on the front row. I wasn’t nervous, I was just waiting for us to make our comeback. Everyone clicked at the same time."
That kind of leadership hasn't always been easy for Neal, who has a reputation for leading by example, not by words.
"This year, I made one of my goals to be a leader on the team," she says. "Sometimes I’m more of a quiet player, but I made sure from the start of the year that I was more vocal and picked our team up."
Kazmierski says there's more to Neal's leadership and persona than that, though.
"The coolest thing about Amy is that she leads though her actions, and she never gets rattled," Kazmierski says. "When we get down, she knows it, our team knows it, the other team knows it -- she's going to get the ball and she's going to get it down. She knows how to step up to finish off opponents."
Neal's no stranger to accolades, either. Her club team won a national title over the summer (with help from high school teammates Patrick, Katy Beals and Mackenzie Mayo), made the national all-tournament team, and she was also the state tournament MVP last year.
Neal has plenty of help, with seven other teammates committed to play at the collegiate level. The list includes: Patrick (Texas A&M), Beals (Washington), Mayo (Baylor), Piper Toler (TCU), Kaci Eaton (North Texas), Cassie Wang (Washington University of St. Louis) and Gabby Bienkowski (Great Falls).
"Seriously," Neal says. "They really could all be All-Americans."
If the Lady Cavaliers keep this up, they will be better than All-Americans. They will be perfect.
Follow Max Thompson on Twitter: @maxthompson
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