by Jessica Langdon
LENEXA — If anyone ever wanted to prove wrong the old saying that “It’s lonely at the top,” they need look no further than the varsity volleyball team of St. James Academy here.
Facing St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, the 5A St. James team won its sixth straight state championship on Nov. 2 at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka — and finished the season ranked No. 1 in the nation by prepvolleyball.com.
And the trip to the top was nothing short of a team effort — from start to finish.
“It’s honestly surreal” is how Arianna Person, a St. James senior who has played on the team all four years, described the feeling of playing on the court while thundering crowds cheered on the team.
“We would not be anywhere as good as we are if it weren’t for our community,” she said. “It’s just nice to know you have people behind your back rooting for you — whether you win or lose.”
This year’s undefeated team carried on a tradition the team started in its earliest days — when St. James first opened in 2005 — explained coach Nancy Dorsey, who is in her ninth year of coaching the volleyball team.
“They were a hard-working bunch,” she said of the team that started with freshmen and grew as the school did. “They believed so strongly in the mission we set for them and the goals.”
And through the years, the expectations, practices and goals have so ingrained themselves in this team and its players that everyone buys into the idea that “this is the way it’s going to be at St. James,” said Dorsey. “We have high expectations for our girls.”
People have taken notice. This isn’t the team’s first No. 1 ranking, and St. James has ranked in the top 50 since 2007, said Dorsey.
And while the team has enjoyed considerable success, it comes with the knowledge that the team has a target on its back, acknowledged Arianna.
Plenty of competitors have set out hoping to quiet the St. James Academy Thunder.
“It helps us realize every day in practice and on the court that we’re going to get everybody’s best match,” said Dorsey. “It keeps us mentally tough, as well as physically tough.”
The girls aren’t easily rattled.
“We’re really disciplined. We have awesome team chemistry,” said Brianna Lewis, a senior at St. James. “We believe in each other and we have faith in each other and we all love each other like sisters.”
They play for one another, said Arianna.
Dorsey has been impressed watching all 12 girls — whether they’re on the court or off — pour everything they have into their roles and the team.
“No one person goes out and wins a volleyball match,” she said. “You need all six players and the people on the bench.”
She has seen them all help one another shine.
And they’d do anything to help each other, said Arianna.
She and Brianna explained that while some teams come together on the court but can take or leave one another when the game ends, the St. James players remain close both on and off the court.
They have bonded with their coaches and created lasting memories through team dinners and the trips to out-of-town games.
Some play other sports together as well.
The team has four Division I players, and two seniors — Arianna and Brianna, who both plan to attend Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. — will be playing Division I volleyball next year, said Dorsey.
One of her happiest moments in coaching came when Brianna shared with her that she’d received a scholarship offer and would be living out her dream.
More members of the team plan to play in college, as well.
It’s always bittersweet — for the players, the team and the coaches — when the season ends and seniors head off to college.
Meanwhile, colleges are also keeping an eye on younger talent on the team.
Two of the sophomores, Audriana Fitzmorris and Jenna Gray, have been heavily recruited, said Dorsey.
Audriana played on the U.S. Junior National team.
“When you’re 6 [foot] 5 [inches tall] and you’re a sophomore and you can move, that’s pretty uncommon,” said Dorsey.
The team members point to their coaches and teammates as examples of how to play their best, and also how to become the best people they can be.
“I know that I’m so much better as a person just for being with these girls — learning the meaning of friendship and teamwork,” said Arianna.
“Knowing how much they care for me has made me want to be a better person. They’ve been with me every step of the way.”
Brianna can easily pinpoint something that stands out to her about every single girl on the team.
For the girls who plan to play college volleyball, Dorsey — who played at the University of Kansas — hasn’t sugarcoated the sometimes pressure-cooker environment.
But the girls who go on to play collegiate volleyball know that high school graduation doesn’t mean they’re cutting ties with their extended St. James family.
For Arianna, it’s “kind of like taking a big weight off your shoulders” to know that Dorsey will not only be following the games when she and Brianna play volleyball at Belmont University next year, but she’ll actually make it to a game.
“My husband and I laugh that all our vacations are going to be volleyball- oriented,” said Dorsey. “They’re part of our family.”