Karen Bradbury had been a part of Providence High's four previous volleyball state championships, first in 1996 when her daughter, Ginger, was the team's setter. Then in 2002, 2004 and 2005, she was the assistant varsity coach under Zoe Bell and the head junior varsity coach.
This year, Bradbury won her first as a head coach, leading the Panthers to a 30-2 record and a dominating victory over Wilmington Hoggard to win the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state championship in Raleigh Nov. 5.
"Each one is just so different because of the chemistry of the girls and the unfolding of the game," said Bradbury. "It was kind of like a surreal moment, I guess. I don't know how to describe it. The relief that you capture it and, you know, the realization that it's over."
Bradbury took over the Providence volleyball program in 2006 after Bell moved to newly-opened conference rival Ardrey Kell. Since then, she has led the Panthers to a state championship berth three times, in 2006, 2010 and winning this year. Last year, Providence was swept by Apex. Bradbury said the loss was motivation for this year's team.
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"When you get so close and you lose it, it just seems like even though it doesn't negate or devalue your whole season and the success of your season, it surely did put a damper on it," said Bradbury.
Providence lost four seniors from that team, but this year had an experienced group of six players that played in Bradbury's nine-player rotation. All but one of the nine, Alexandra Mayo, also played club volleyball. Bradbury said the experience of playing volleyball year around and devoting so much time to the sport helped this year's team.
The Panthers started the season with 13 straight 3-0 matches before losing in five games to Hough, an up-and-coming program that made it to the fourth round of the 4A state tournament. Providence didn't lose again the regular season and swept every match except for one against Ardrey Kell, which the Panthers won 3-1.
Bradbury said the team broke the season down into smaller chunks, focusing on each point and each game, not looking ahead to the state championship.
"For them, I don't think they walked into any game and said, 'Let's take this 3-0,'" she said. "Their goal was to play smart, play hard and the points took care of the games and the games took care of the match. It just so happened that we ended up being 3-0 in the majority of our matches."
After beating Rocky River and South Mecklenburg in the first two games of the Southwestern 4A tournament, Providence played rival Ardrey Kell a third time, losing 3-2.
"I know it ticked them off," Bradbury said about the loss. But it showed the Panthers that any team can beat them in any game.
"I definitely think losing that game, that horrible feeling of losing made us never want to lose again, especially since we had already beaten them twice," said senior outside hitter Megan Edwards.
This year's Panthers never did lose again, dropping just two games in the playoffs before sweeping Hoggard in the state championship 25-20, 25-18, 25-12. Providence only lost nine games all season.
"I think we played together really well," setter Maryanne Grayson said about the playoff matches. "I think those were some of the best games of our season."
Edwards was named the championship's most valuable player after what Bradbury called "the best game of her life, offensively and defensively." Edwards had a team-high 12 kills and 4 aces and also had 12 digs in the championship match.
"I guess it was one of the best games I've played, which was good timing," said Edwards. "I think I just had a fire. I didn't want to come out and lose again like last year."
Junior outside hitter Casey Rieger, who Bradbury said was sick the week of the match, added 6 kills and 13 digs in the match. Rieger finished the season leading the team with 316 kills.
The Panthers were also helped by three seniors who didn't get much playing time last year: captain Samantha Timmons, who sat out last year with an ACL tear, Mayo and Grayson, who was in her first year as a setter.
"It was hard. There was a lot of outside of regular practice work," said Grayson about the transition. She enjoyed being the setter "because you had the ability to control the offense."
Middle blockers senior Mireya Braxton and junior Emily Franklin, usually joined by Timmons or Mayo, made shots hard on opposing teams all season. Franklin led the team with 67 total blocks and Braxton was second with 55.
"Any opponent against us had to go around three big players continuously," said Bradbury.
From the beginning of the season, Bradbury said she stayed in the moment, focusing on each game and each point and not looking ahead to a state title.
Now, she can enjoy the moment.
"Without a doubt it's a wonderful experience," she said. "It's a great ride, wouldn't change it for the world."