For a Williamstown girls volleyball team that starts preparing for postseason play almost from the start of each year, hearing rumblings that the current Tournament of Champions might be the last may have been the extra motivating factor the team needed.
Since 2000, the Braves had won 17 conference titles, four sectional titles and four state titles entering the 2021-22′ season, proving to be one of the strongest teams in the state each year.
But despite their extensive track record of success, one certain accomplishment had eluded the Williamstown program over the course of the past two decades: a Tournament of Champions crown.
In historic fashion, the Braves celebrated their first Tournament of Champions victory over Paul VI this season, in the final year of the once-annual championship, achieving the final win to complete a perfect 37-0 season.
Looking back, coach Chris Sheppard said that although his is a team that eyes a state championship appearance every season, an unbeaten year is more than unexpected.
“I would’ve been shocked if you told me at the beginning of the year that we would go unbeaten,” Sheppard said. “We purposefully put together a very tough schedule every year, kind of expecting to lose one here and there, for the sole purpose of making us tougher throughout the season.
“We’re a team that talks about winning a state championship all the time, but never in all my years have I discussed trying to go undefeated.”
The perfect season saw Williamstown drop just four sets all year, as the Braves and Paul VI eventually faced each other in the Tournament of Champions, both representing the first South Jersey teams to ever make it to the final round.
After a shortened season last year due to COVID, the Braves, much like most other teams across the region, also had a short offseason this summer before returning for another year in the fall. For a team with quite a few young players coming into the season, potential was high, with many on the team looking forward to proving themselves.
“I was really excited because this was my first real season without COVID that I could start in,” junior Mia Owens said. “I figured we could do big things, and with us hearing that this was probably the last year for the Tournament of Champions, we really wanted to be the first team in Williamstown history to bring that home.”
Junior Joanna Andrews, who led the state in assists this season with 784, was a focal point of the team’s plans this year, according to Sheppard. She switched from a 6-2 to a 5-1 offense, meaning Andrews would spend more time on the court than she did last year.
“We would’ve been a really good team without [Andrews] on the court as much as she was,” Sheppard said. “But only with her were we a truly great team.”
Andrews anticipated the switch might be a little more difficult for her personally, between added time on the court and additional responsibility in the front row when she would normally be subbed out. But Andrews feels she took to the change quickly, helping get the team on track early in the season.
“I knew going into the season that I was going to get more attention during games, since I would be on the whole time, but I was ready for that challenge,” Andrews said. “We all had great connections on the court in placing it where our teammates like or want to hit it … It just felt right all season.”
Sophomore Dajah Williams, who led the team in kills this season as an outside hitter, moved to the position after playing elsewhere last season. Despite initially being unsure of the switch, Williams grew to love the move and developed a strong relationship with Andrews on the court, helping fuel what was already proving to be a special group.
“I was never an outside hitter before, so it was really outside of my comfort zone, but as the season went along, I ended up loving it,” Williams said. “This season just ended up feeling so special, with me and others improving a lot or just playing great in general …
“We had a special group this season,’’ she added, ‘and as we kind of heard more and more that this would probably be the last year for the Tournament of Champions, it really motivated us.”
The relatively young Braves came together all at once to complete an unbelievable season.
“It’s really special to have that kind of youth all come together like it did all at the same time …” Sheppard said. “Judging by our own growth patterns, we kind of expected next year to be the year where the team would be able to play the level that they did this year, which is just remarkable.”