Picture Perfect: Lovejoy on verge of completing 'Drive for Five'
Photos Courtesy of Gaye Connell - Though one girl from the team moved, the contingent of Lovejoy seniors (from left) Bailey Martin, Brooke Ray, Lucy Tweedie, Hannah Atkison, Shannon Connell, Mallorie Puckett and Mackie Bardwell have stayed together since starting on Victory 12 six years ago. The Lady Leopards even tried to convince Bardwell, now the team manager, to play on Senior Night.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
That adage was backed up by Lovejoy seniors Bailey Martin, Brooke Ray, Lucy Tweedie, Hannah Atkison, Shannon Connell and Mallorie Puckett when they got a look at their team photo from Victory 12, a squad established six years ago and consisting of those same girls along with current senior team manager Mackie Bardwell.
"Oh my gosh, that is hilarious," Ray said. "Everyone looks so small and pudgy."
"We're trying to look so tough," Martin added, "but none of us can keep a straight face."
Martin was the one most of the girls said has changed the most since the six-year-old photo was taken.
"We've all changed so much," Ray said, "but I'd probably say Bailey looks like she has changed the most."
"Bailey is the most different," Connell added.
"Yeah," Tweedie said. "Bailey is a lot more intimidating now."
Opinions were similarly unanimous when it came to which player looked the most similar to when the team started with Martin, Tweedie and Puckett all mentioning Atkinson.
"It's weird," Connell said, "because we look remarkably different but still kind of the same."
Connell put forth her vote for Puckett being most similar to six year ago.
"Mallorie always had that fire," she said, "even when she was 12."
"Yeah," Puckett responded, "but we were all so competitive, even back then."
Even Lady Leopards head coach Ryan Mitchell enjoyed the nostalgic photo.
"Look at that," he said before slyly adding, "They were already showing the attitude they have even now."
Mitchell and his now ex-wife Lana started Victory 12 in the 2006-07 school year.
"We saw that there were all these talented kids and we wanted to get something started in the community," said Mitchell, who was hired as Lovejoy head coach when the program began in fall 2006. "And I think it worked because this is where these girls' passion for the game really started."
Mitchell was quick to credit Lana for much of that.
"Absolutely," he said. "Lana is one of the best volleyball coaches I've ever know; she got the kids started, instilled them with discipline and was a big part of this."
The girls came together from two different schools for Victory 12.
"Some of us were from Lovejoy (Elementary) and some were from Hart (Elementary)," Ray said, "so I think, at first, we weren't sure if we were going to like each other."
Those fears were quickly assuaged.
"Some of us went to the same church," Tweedie said, "so there were some little connections there and I think it was a pretty smooth transition."
The team's skill level was quickly apparent.
"We were raw," Connell said, "but there was so much talent there."
"You could definitely see the talent right away," Tweedie added.
Though that's not to say there weren't any obstacles to overcome.
"I was afraid of all the tall girls at first," said Atkison, who was 5-foot-1 at the time. "Especially Lucy (5-foot-9 at the time); here I was this little setter and there were all these giant girls."
Things changed quickly.
"By the time we got to middle school Lucy became one of my best friends," Atkison said. "She still is."
While the height disparity between Atkison and Tweedie is still intact, other players have seen more dramatic changes.
"Yeah, back then I was a middle (blocker) and now I'm a libero," Ray said. "I guess I hit my growth spurt a little earlier than everyone else."
The heights, positions and hair colors have changed for several of the girls in the past six years, but one primary trait remained.
"The girls rolled that season into seventh and eighth grade volleyball and did really well there too," Mitchell said. "That really fired them up and got them ready to compete for championships."
These girls haven't just competed for titles, they have won them.
The Lady Leopards captured the past four Class 3A State Championships, a first in UIL volleyball history, prior to moving up to Class 4A this season with Puckett winning three titles and the majority of the others winning two. Lovejoy faces Cedar Park at 7 p.m. today from the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland in the state semis with the finals scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
The march to this year's state tourney has been more bittersweet than season's past.
"It is sad because these girls are like my sisters," Tweedie said.
"It all kind of hit me this week that this is the end for us all being together," Martin added. "I'm sure I'm going to cry when it's all over."
The team held its last school practice Wednesday.
"It's funny because so many times you're tired and don't want to practice," Connell said, "but these past couple weeks everyone has been excited about being at practice because we know we don't have a lot of time left together."
The girls seem intent on making that time count.
"It's sad this is the end for us," Ray said, "but it's been such a blessing to play with these girls; they have become my best friends and I know we are going out with a bang."
"Time flies, but we're still together," Puckett added. "It's amazing to think I get to finish my high school career with my best friends. I think that's one of the reasons we want this so much; we want to prove to everyone we can win state at a new level."
The girls of Victory 12 have already proven plenty by going from trying to look fearsome in a photo to one of the most feared teams in Texas in the span of six years.
"It'll probably hit me after the fact because it's tough to think about this being a lot of the girls' last season in the moment when you're trying to win a state title," Mitchell said. "But I guess this weekend is it. You've meant a lot to them, but they've meant a lot to you too ... these are the girls that put Lovejoy volleyball on the map."