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The City Journals

Bobcats claim first volleyball championship in 20 years

Dec 08, 2016 01:56PM ● By Tori LaRue

Bennion Junior High Boys Volleyball players celebrate winning the championship game against Olympus Junior High on Oct. 19. Bennion hadn’t won a boys volleyball championship since 1996. (Granite School District)

By Tori La Rue | [email protected]

The score was 24-22 with Bennion Junior High School up by one game. Olympus Junior High lobbed the volleyball over the net, but Corbin Wilkinson slammed it down, scoring the final point in the championship game.

“I don’t know how to describe that feeling. It was sensational, really,” said Tyler Olsen, who plays middle-back for the Bennion Junior High boys volleyball team. 

Tears of joy filled the eyes of some of the players as more than 100 Bennion students stormed the court on Oct. 19, celebrating the end of a drought. The Bobcats had claimed their school’s first boys volleyball championship since 1996. 

“We’re just like any other team, but it just goes to show that there’s no substitute for hard work,” Hunter Smith, the team’s libero, said. “If you put in the work, you’ll come out on top.” 

The Bobcats got off to what their coach Tami Decora calls a “mediocre start,” losing their beginning games to Evergreen, Churchill and Olympus. Although their chances of winning the championship weren’t looking good on paper, Decora said she knew this could be their year to win. 

“It all just slowly started coming together,” she said. “Watching the boys and the camaraderie that they have, we knew we could do it.” 

Decora’s belief that her team would make it to the playoffs led her to put off taking a vacation to visit family in Portland during fall break. Three weeks prior to the championship, Decora decided to forego purchasing plane tickets for Oct. 19 to keep her schedule open for the championship game night. 

At the time, she had no quantifiable evidence to assume Bennion would be at the playoffs, but she knew how hard the boys were willing to work, assistant coach John Rees said. She told them she chose not to go on the trip in case the team made it to the playoffs, and that gave them a reason to play better, he added. 

The boys attended their 6 a.m. practices continually working to better their skills. Most of them had less than a year of experience playing the sport but were athletic in other ways. For example, Wilkinson, Smith and Devin Beckstead play on the Bennion baseball team, and Jackson Rees and Chris Kavapalu play on the basketball team. 

The nine varsity players’ athletic training came a long way in helping them succeed, according to John Rees, which is why they were selected for the team among the more than 50 students who tried out. 

“We knew if any year could take the championship, it was these guys,” John Rees said. 

After the boys got used to the sport, Decora and John Rees started switching the players’ positions around, finding where the team meshed together the best. 

They ended up with 6-foot middle hitters in Wilkinson and Kavapalu, with Jackson Rees as setter, Connor Evans and Mitch Herrin as outside hitters, Smith as libero and Beckstead, Olson and Mormon Vaitu’u on the back row. 

With Churchill and Olympus winning nearly all the district championship games in boys volleyball for the past 20 years, Decora said she had to work with the team to get them mentally ready to verse their opponents. When they played the teams in the regular season, they lost, but it had been close and that gave them confidence, Decora said. 

“They’d get this mental block where they didn’t think they could win, so they’d slip up, but we worked on some things,” she said. 

Bennion made it to the semi-playoffs on Oct. 17 where they’d need to beat Churchill to get to the championship game. 

“We had a good mindset going in, knowing that we were going to play as hard as we could and play our strengths,” Smith said. 

After winning the semi-championship, the team was ready to roll, according to Decora. But that didn’t mean they weren’t apprehensive. 

“It was a little scary,” Beckstead said of making it to the championship game. “On the bus ride over there you could feel the tension, and I was nervous.” 

Bennion got off to a good start, taking the first of the three-game rounds against Olympus with a score of 25–23. Then Smith led the Bobcats to a nine-point lead with his serves at the beginning of the second game. Olympus gained momentum, closing Bennion’s lead from nine to two points before Wilkinson scored the final point for the Bobcats. 

“It was crazy,” Wilkinson said after the game. “I just had so many emotions and could not believe we won.” 

Beckstead and Olson, the only eighth-graders from the 2016 varsity team, said they’re already planning to win the championship next year. 

“We’ll have it again,” Olson said. “We’ve just got to develop our skills and not mess around.”      λ