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Mead volleyball coach Shawn Wilson, shown in 2015, has his Panthers back at the State 4A tournament. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

State volleyball preview: Mead, Liberty represent different ends of sport’s spectrum in area

You can forgive Mead if it enters the State 4A volleyball tournament with a chip on its shoulder.

Runner-up last season to Auburn Riverside, the Panthers enter the tourney this weekend as Greater Spokane League champion, District 8 champion, and undefeated in league and postseason.

Yet, the Panthers enter the tournament ranked second in the state coaches’ poll behind – you guessed it – Auburn Riverside.

The volleyball program at Mead is a storied one. The Panthers have earned seven state championships since 1999 – but none since 2009. They came tantalizingly close last year.

So, do the Panthers feel like they have some unfinished business to take care of Friday and Saturday at Toyota Center in Kennewick?

“Yeah, definitely,” senior outside hitter Maddie Lee said on Tuesday. “I think with the way the bracket is set up they’re setting up kind of a rematch of last year. Hopefully, we play well enough to make it back to the championship and hopefully get some revenge.”

Coach Shawn Wilson concurred with his star.

“You know, the girls certainly feel that way,” he said. “I have a lot of returners. They were upset with how last year finished. They’re looking forward to this year. They have a little chip on their shoulder right now – something to fight for.

“I think it gives more pressure because they feel like they should perform really well at state – and then there’s always the fear that you won’t,” Wilson said. “So they’re always kind of looking over their shoulders as to how they’re going to play and who they are going to run into. So yeah, it’s hard.”

“I think it definitely puts a target on our back,” Lee said. “We’re kind of one of the top dogs going into the state tournament.”

There are 15 teams in The Spokesman-Review’s coverage area playing at state this year. Just in sheer numbers, it makes Spokane something of a hotbed of volleyball.

“I think it is (remarkable),” Wilson said. “It seems like consistently year in and year out (the GSL schools) have really good representation (to state).

“And then I look at the paper and see all the 2As and the 1As and the rest are doing the same thing.

“Maybe the smaller community brings that out a little bit more. You get some loyal players that stick through a program and develop. It seems like there might be more of that happening.”

One of those smaller schools is Liberty, in Spangle – population 297. Unlike Mead, Liberty is not a perennial volleyball power. It’s the first time that Liberty has qualified for state volleyball as a 2B school, and first time since 1975 (1A) at any qualification.

The last time Liberty qualified for any girls sport other than track and field was in 2009, for the State 2B basketball tournament.

Liberty lost a loser-out game to state last year, so getting over the hump was “a great accomplishment for the program,” according to Lancers first-year head coach Kaci Tee.

Tee previously coached at Tekoa-Oakesdale – which qualified this year individually as Oakesdale – and qualified for state several times. She doesn’t see any reason why that can’t happen at Liberty.

“When I was down at T-O, I started the junior high (program) at Liberty and I’ve coached there on and off for the past five years,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to move up with the same group of girls I had in junior high. It’s huge for Liberty to be able to go to state volleyball.”

Though Liberty doesn’t have volleyball pedigree as some of the other area schools, Tee doesn’t see the situation as a fluke.

“We’re definitely happy we’re (going to state), but we’re not satisfied in just getting here,” Tee said. “We’re going down to compete with the best in the state. We’re confident. I don’t think we’ve played our best volleyball yet. I think the best is yet to come. And what better time than the present?”

Tee thinks the volleyball movement in the area can be traced in part to getting younger kids involved.

“I think a lot of it, a lot of these girls start playing at a young age. The youth programs and the club programs in the area I think are some of the best. It gets the girls excited about the sport and trains them well.”

Tee said that while her players are excited about representing Liberty at state for the first time, they also realize that they still have to perform on the court.

“I think they’re pretty focused on the mission,” Tee said. “We’ve really tried to ingrain in them to enjoy the moments, but also we’re going down there to compete.

“They’re definitely a competitive group of girls and they don’t like to lose. So we’re going to go down there and give it our best shot.”