CRAWFORD — Following a two-hour practice on Monday, the members of Crawford’s top-ranked volleyball team went to work. Some of them disassembled the net, others rolled out long mats and set up chairs for the junior high basketball game that was scheduled for that night.

Then, when everything was in place, a few of the girls turned cartwheels on the court.

The scene shows the essence of this Lady Pirate team: Work hard. Play hard. Giggle all the way.

“I think this group works super hard,” Crawford coach Jeff Coker said. “They do a good job of finding the balance of when they can be silly and goof off and just let their personalities show, and they also know when it’s time to go to work — ‘We’ve got to get after it right now.’ They do a good job of balancing the two.”

Crawford (47-4) wants to keep that balance intact for a few more days. If the Lady Pirates can work as diligently as they’ve done all season for two more games, they can cut loose and have some serious fun. That’s because they’ll be state champions again.

Two years ago, Crawford capped off a special season with a sweep of Iola in the final match of the year, capturing the program’s first state title. In 2018, the Lady Pirates again fielded a potent and successful lineup, but lost in the Region II-2A final to Lindsay, falling one win shy of a return trip to state.

That loss ached as deeply as the previous year’s triumph had comforted. And it stayed with the Lady Pirates all year and into the summer.

“I think sometimes a heartbreaking loss propels you to do something special the next year,” Coker said. “Just like in 2016, we had a hard playoff loss, last year we had another one. You saw this summer, the kids were motivated.”

Coker didn’t need to take attendance in the team’s advance camp — everyone showed up. That fire carried over into the team’s preseason workouts, and has required very little rekindling throughout the season.

“This group of seniors, we’re all really close and we all know how it felt two years ago to win it,” said senior libero Peyton Elmore. “We knew if we were going to do it, this was our year to be able to do it. … We knew how bad it felt to lose in the regional finals last year. So that made us want it even worse. I think that definitely pushed us to want to get there. But we want to be able to win it, too.”

As usual, Crawford’s schedule laid the groundwork for a return trip to state. In nondistrict play, the Lady Pirates didn’t back down from anyone, playing a variety of higher-classification foes and, often, winning. Crawford tallied wins over the likes of Class 6A Converse Judson, Tyler Lee and Copperas Cove this season, among others.

Coker said that it’s beneficial for his team to go up against big-school teams that may have six-footers all the way across their front lines. That’s so when Crawford faces off against the Class 2A teams in its district and in the playoffs, the “game slows down for them,” the coach explained.

“He always tells us that he doesn’t want our last game to be the best team we’ve played,” senior middle blocker Ana Maddox said. “So it’s very nice that he does that for us. It definitely prepares us.”

At a 2A school like Crawford, these athletes are teammates year-round. One sports season bleeds into the next, and sometimes the students spend as much time with each other as they do their own families.

Then it’s a good thing these Lady Pirates all get along really well.

“It’s so crazy, because when we get done we’ll see each other every day at school and it’s just like we never leave each other,” Elmore said. “It’s one big circle. Wake up, see them at school, have two-hour practices after school, wake up, see them again. I see them five to six days out of the week, and I just love it. I love being around them.”

Often, even when there’s not a practice or a game on the schedule, they’re still together. Maddox said that after the team’s practice last Saturday, they held a “team-bonding thing,” which ultimately turned out to be a laugh-filled game of Twister.

“I think this year rather than last year our team is a lot closer,” said senior outside hitter Anne Williams. “We’re more like a family than just a team.”

They’d love to hold a rollicking family reunion just before the weekend. Crawford will face off with Burton (34-15) in Wednesday’s 2A semifinals at 3 p.m., and will need to win to advance to Friday’s state championship match against the winner of Leon and Wink.

First comes the work. Then, they hope, the fun.

“Man, that would be super special,” Coker said. “Obviously after you win one, it’s kind of one of those things where you always want to win another one. Kids are that way too. They know you don’t have even have a chance to win another one if you don’t take care of business on Wednesday.”

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