The atmosphere inside the Lenape High School south gym last Wednesday evening was electric.
Lenape girls volleyball was engaged in a tight and intense match with a Paul VI team sporting a perfect 5-0 record at the time. After dropping the first set, the Indians battled back to win the second and the two teams traded the lead back and forth in the third and deciding set.
With each point Lenape won, the Indians’ bench grew louder and louder, finally reaching a crescendo when the Indians, on a Paul VI match point, got a huge block from sophomore Ava Rankin to tie the third set at 24-24. Lenape won the next two points to take the match, setting off a huge celebration on the court.
Not too long ago, celebrating a win was a rare occurrence at Lenape. In three seasons from 2013 through 2015, the Indians won a combined four matches. The program hit rock bottom in 2015, when it went 0-20.
In 2017, Erica Bradley became the head coach for Lenape and everything changed. The team ran off back-to-back seasons with winning records, and despite losing most of its starting lineup from 2018, has shown it has the potential to finish above .500 once again this year.
How have the Indians been able to turn things around in just a few short years? Seniors Samantha Walters and Bianca McDonald give the credit to Bradley, saying she was able to completely change the culture and give the team confidence it hadn’t had in the past.
“On the court, we’re more confident,” Walters said. “She also teaches us life lessons to keep us positive on the court.”
Walters and McDonald joined the program in 2016, the season after Lenape went winless. McDonald still remembers how different the culture of the program was when she first arrived at the school.
“It wasn’t taken that seriously,” McDonald said. “We didn’t have many hopes for winning because of all of the previous years of losing. We thought the trend would continue forever. Then Bradley came in and wiped it all away.”
“My freshman year, even coming to watch my sister play before I came to Lenape, there were only parents and barely even that many,” junior Anna Blackburn added. “It was dull and not as exciting as it is today. Now, a lot more people are showing up because we have new coaching and our team has played better.”
Bradley believes Lenape always had enough talent, but the losing seasons had worn down the players and a change in the team’s mindset was needed.
“We definitely had the athletes,” Bradley said. “We always had talent. The girls just needed a little bit more direction and someone to guide them along.”
In Bradley’s first season as head coach in 2017, the Indians hit new highs, winning the Olympic Conference Patriot Division as well as the program’s first-ever playoff game. Last year, the Indians set a new program record with 18 victories and finished tied for the conference championship with Paul VI.
Bradley credits the players for embracing change and coming together, saying these factors have helped lead to the program’s turnaround.
“It’s amazing that they did put the work in and start believing in themselves,” she said.
Now, Lenape is tasked with making winning a regular occurrence. Many of the key players who were part of Lenape’s turnaround have graduated, meaning it’s now up to a new group of senior leaders to keep the wins coming.
“The team has had a lot to prove because of where they started from,” Bradley said. “Teams will look at us and don’t always take us seriously. (The seniors) know they have some big shoes to fill and I think they’re doing a great job stepping into those roles.”
The start of Lenape’s 2019 season was filled with ups and downs as the Indians tried to work a number of new varsity players into the lineup while facing a difficult early season schedule. Back-to-back losses to Shawnee and Cherry Hill East left Lenape at 2-3 entering last Wednesday’s win over Paul VI. The struggles prior to that match made the win over the Eagles even more crucial.
“This is really going to bring up our team’s confidence because before this, we hadn’t won a home game,” McDonald said. “We really needed this one.”
“A lot of people thought we weren’t going to be anything with losing (seven) seniors,” Walters said. “They thought we were going to be back to the (0-20) Lenape.”
Time will tell whether the Indians can match their outstanding 2018 win total. But regardless of what lies ahead, it’s clear the struggles of Lenape’s past are now ancient history.