Twenty years ago, Evangelical Christian School won its first state girls volleyball championship, beginning a stretch of success that would drive future teams after it.
And now the rafters in the school’s gymnasium are lined with long white banners highlighting the six state titles and six region championships the program has achieved since then.
This year’s club hopes to reach that pinnacle yet again, even if they know the road won’t be easy – it’s been eight years since ECS last won a state title.
But success hasn’t always been determined that by credential.
The Sentinels clinched their sixth straight season of 20 or more wins on Oct. 6 and aim to win their sixth straight District 3A-9 championship on Oct. 22 at Southwest Florida Christian Academy.
“All the alumni of the past, they have set the standards,” ECS coach Theresa Kabel said. “These girls know it. We try to reach it every year.”
History has always marked successful Sentinels teams. This year is no different.
Senior Emily Moore is the fourth sibling in a family that has come through the ranks at ECS volleyball. Her sister, Ann, won a state title in 2007, while her siblings Ginny and Schuyler were on the 2011 team that won 25 games.
“I know for me, that’s what drives me and a lot of the older girls,” Moore said.
But history can only serve so much purpose. It’s why Moore and fellow senior Emily Laquidara began what would be known as “accountability partners” before the season.
The idea, which asked teammates to enlist in a helper to help encourage them to set daily and weekly goals, was plucked from the movie When the Game Stands Tall, Moore said.
“It’s not only about keeping each other physically accountable but spiritually accountable,” Moore said. “We want to let everyone know that you have a person you can rely on in hard times and easy times to talk about your faith, to talk about your school work and to talk about volleyball. “
The idea could have easily been just that. But the Sentinels (20-5, 10-0 District 3A-9) have latched on. Junior Caroline Forster said the team places pieces of papers with insight of their goals on the bench chairs before each game.
“We try to talk before every game,” Forster said. “We try to set goals during games and during practices.”
Despite graduating three seniors, including captain Sara Miller, the Sentinels raced off to a 6-0 record.
The team’s burgeoning confidence only raised at Estero’s Wildcat Invitational. They won four straight games in the tournament before facing off with Class 7A Sarasota in the final.
“We were down 18-12 that first game,” Moore said. “And when you’re down like that, it’s hard sometimes to come back. You’re scatterbrained and you start to get nervous.”
But ECS managed to fight back, beating the Sailors in two straight sets. They went 5-0 in the tournament.
While the Sentinels were 19-2 heading into the last four games of the season, they lost three out of four, including a 3-0 loss to a team they beat earlier in the season, Class 6A Fort Myers.
“But we schedule those better teams that late to get us better for districts,” said Kabel, whose team also lost to Barron Collier and Seacrest Country Day, two teams with a combined record of 31-15. “It helps us know what we have to work on so we’re stronger in playoff time. Being exposed to those weaknesses determines how we’ll train for the playoffs.”
Still, the Sentinels remain confident heading into the most important juncture of the season.
As each new postseason arrives, players like Moore always look to the walls for a reminder of what’s been done, and what’s possible in the future.
“You’re going to come across good teams that are just better than you every now and again,” Moore said. “And just in hard situations like that, rising above that and giving 100 percent is what’s important.”