CRAWFORD — During a memorable scene from the movie “Hoosiers,” head coach Norman Dale of tiny Hickory High School takes out a measuring tape to show his team that no matter the vastness of the state championship game arena, the goal still stands 10 feet from the floor.
Jeff Coker won’t have to do that in Garland.
Coker has taken three Crawford volleyball teams to the UIL state tournament in the past five seasons. The seniors on this year’s No. 1-ranked squad were sophomores in 2015, when the Lady Pirates succumbed to Iola in the state semifinals. They may have marveled at the grand expanse of the state stage then, but those days are over.
This time it’ll be more like, OK. Been here. Done that. The net’s still the height of Ralph Sampson (7 feet, 4 inches), just like it is back at Crawford’s home gym.
“I think it helps,” Crawford senior setter Haley Vaughn said. “You go in there, it’s a really big coliseum, you get kind of scared. But now you know what to expect, and it doesn’t overwhelm you.”
Since suffering a surprising area-round loss to Milano in last year’s playoffs, the Lady Pirates have been on a mission. No, really. The team adopted the motto “Mission: Greatness” for the 2017 season, and they doggedly set forth on doing whatever was necessary to achieve the ultimate greatness of a state championship.
Coker saw the mission take root over the summer. He said that the team’s participation in strength-and-conditioning workouts, in thumping serve after serve after serve in a stifling, hot gym, was better than in any of his previous seasons at coach.
“Some of that goes back to the old 10,000-hour rule,” Coker said. “You’ve got to spend 10,000 hours playing it or watching it to be great at it. Just the experience of last year, they knew what to expect, and just the confidence they gained from being able to play at a big 5A/6A tournament early on in the season.
“Nobody at the 2A level is going to present the challenges that those people presented. The game has kind of slowed down for them.”
Crawford’s opponents might dispute the idea that the Lady Pirates (44-7) are playing in slow motion. But the simple truth is this: When the Lady Pirates are working in perfect synchronicity, it’s a beautiful thing. Coker calls volleyball a “rhythm sport,” and Crawford’s players have turned their righteous rhythm into a long ballad of blues for their foes.
“It just feels really easy,” said Vaughn of the feeling when Crawford is working in perfect unison. “Volleyball can be really easy if you make it easy.”
Vaughn simplifies the game for her talented teammates with her own astute play on the court. She has started in Crawford’s 5-1 system since her freshman season of 2014. The Angelo State signee has delivered a school-record 5,113 assists over her four-year run, and has a knack for knowing when to set the ball to the hottest hand or the best option for the moment.
“When you have weapons at every spot it allows you to just make the right volleyball play,” Coker said.
The Lady Pirates can make it look easy sometimes, even though it took a heck of a lot of hard work to cast that impression. Bump, set, spike – break it down to a simple three-word phrase, and it seems so elementary. Many times this year, Crawford has excelled to the point where it’s just that simple – in the opening set of its second district meeting with Blum, at different points of the team’s playoff wins over Thorndale and Lindsay.
“It’s cool to see how we all can connect and make one play, with the ball going through three different people. It’s great,” said senior Morgan Claxton, one of six Crawford players with more than 100 kills on the season.
Crawford’s mission of greatness is nearing completion, but the key idea there, at least in the minds of the Lady Pirates, is “nearing.” Entering Wednesday’s Class 2A state semifinal meeting with Archer City, the temptation might be great to start dreaming about the potential emotions of a triumphant, trophy-toting moment.
But this is a mature Lady Pirate team, one that didn’t graduate a single player from last year’s bunch. It’s a different spin on the old “one game at a time” idea, but they’re breaking down their mission to fractions of a game.
“Part of the whole ‘Mission Greatness’ theme is to not worry about wins and losses, not worry about anything else, but just focus on being great on that one ball,” Coker said. “If it’s your turn to serve, be great on that serve. If it’s your turn to pass and serve-receive, you’ve got to be great on that pass. When it’s your turn to dig a ball or set a ball or hit a ball, you’ve got to be great on that.
“Just really trying to stay focused on the process of being great. When it’s all said and done, we can look back and enjoy whatever the result ends up being.”