By Kyle Roberts
Ruston High School volleyball coach Lucie Hunt knew last season that something special was happening right in front of her eyes.
A program that is growing into a North Louisiana powerhouse (and likely, soon, the entire state) felt that tectonic shift in a home playoff matchup against St. Amant in the first round of the postseason.
“It was a five-set match, and it was point for point every set,” Hunt said. “The fifth set ended up being 17-15 and we ended up winning.”
As impressive as the win was, it was the crowd in the gymnasium that really captured the attention of the team. Slowly, but surely on that night, people starting filing their way in; students, coaches, community supporters; you name it, until the whole gym was bursting with Bearcat fans in to cheer on the team
“It was like people were calling and posting on social media for people to come out,” Hunt said. “We had so many faculty members, coaches and administrators. The community support after that was unreal. It took that game to launch this program into this year. Everybody wanted to know our schedule and when our home games were going to be. Our social media following went up a couple hundred overnight. That game last season set the tone for this season.”
Hard to argue with that. The Lady Bearcats finished the 2022 season with an overall record of 29-12, collecting multiple postseason district awards including Co-Coach of the Year, Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, as well as multiple all-district team members.
When asked about a similar match from this past season that felt as electric as the St. Amant playoff match, Hunt recalled the tremendous atmosphere in the gym for the home match with Natchitoches Central on Sept. 27. The Lady Chiefs sports a volleyball program that is on par with the talent level that Ruston brings year after year, and despite the crowd, Ruston fell to NC in five sets, with the fifth set going to extra points.
“They’re always so much fun to play,” Hunt said. “They’re our district rival in volleyball and always tough to play, but you want matches like that. There were so many Ruston volleyball alumni in the stands. Before the match got started, you could hear them shouting in the stands. People know what games to come to now; I knew (NC) was going to be a barn-burner. Unfortunately, we ended up on the losing side of that, but we had the community support.”
The Natchitoches Central loss came on the heels of a tough stretch for the 2022 Lady Bearcats. After playing multiple matches against high quality South Louisiana volleyball teams in the Bearcat Brawl, the NC match would ultimately decide the winner of the district title. Shortly after that loss, Ruston went on a tear down the remainder of the schedule and earned itself the No. 18 spot in the postseason.
A familiar opponent from the schedule awaited them in the first round: the Terrebonne Tigers, with whom they split matches in the regular season. Having already seen the Tigers twice, the Lady Bearcats devised the winning formula and completed the road sweep to tally the first road playoff match win in program history. Hunt credits the caliber of opponents from the Bearcat Brawl and other tournaments on the schedule for preparing the team for the first round win.
Now, the team is settling into the reality that so many senior contributors will not return next year, as Maggie Ambrose, Hannah Johnson, Jeralyn Black, Cece Williams, Rhagen Shallowhorn and Lorelei Freling will be graduating in the spring.
“We had some different personalities this year,” Hunt said about her team as a whole. “We had two new girls come into the program this year; one from Texas and one from Shreveport. There was certainly a dynamic shift. Last year, we graduated six, as well, and those six were major contributors and leaders. This year, we had some girls that needed to step up, and we had moments when they did, but I think as a whole, they did a good job being a senior class. We had all these different personalities. I think it trickled down throughout the team.”
Now that the season has ended, Hunt has already in her mind promoted a new senior class, along with others who will need to make a leap next season to continue the momentum for the program.
“We’ve had some team meetings already because, to us, the juniors are now seniors since the season is over,” Hunt said. “Hannah (Rollins) and Jade (Smith) will step up; everybody looks to the two of them. They are those middles that run the net. And Harper (Cauley) has a leadership mentality and knows what she’s doing on the court. She’s only going to get better.”
Next year’s team will face another competitive schedule in the effort to continue to climb upward and onward with tournaments down in South Louisiana peppered on the schedule, a trip at the end of the season to The Dunham Tournament, and hosting a growing Bearcat Brawl again for the third straight year.
And circled on the calendar is the away district match with Natchitoches Central, with likely 2023 district title implications on the line.
It’s certainly been a banner season for the Lady Bearcats in 2022. Hunt concluded with how proud she was of the team as a whole, but she also stressed the importance and appreciation for the support from Ruston fans everywhere who have fallen in love with this program.
“We wish we could have gone further than we did in the postseason to get over the second round hump, but in the community’s eyes, it feels like we won state,” Hunt said. “You felt it this year. You could go to a gas station this year with a Ruston volleyball shirt on and they were high-fiving you. We really acknowledge and appreciate the support from the community, it’s humbling and gives you a sense of pride in this community. The amount of phone calls and e-mails telling us how much they love Ruston Volleyball. It just feels like it was so much bigger this year.”