Some are calling this “a Cinderella story.”
The Avilla School houses 182 students, grades kindergarten to eighth grade. They have a basketball team – and as of this year, a volleyball team for seventh and eighth grades. In August, a parent approached Avilla Superintendent Scott Blake about adding another sport to the school.
“At first I was reluctant, thinking only a few girls would be on it, but it was very well received,” Blake said. “We had large crowds, and lots of girls tried out … I think it shocked everyone – we went from no team to this huge following.”
Avilla teacher Raquel Maldonado, of Monett, said she had been waiting for the chance to coach a volleyball team – and she couldn't of asked for a better group of student athletes. However, everything else was a challenge and needed help.
Other schools had already started their season, schedules were made and had already practiced many times together. The Avilla School had one net (a flimsy one) not enough balls (which were not regulation) no other equipment or uniforms. Four out of the 16 girls who made the A and B teams had volleyball experience.
The team got to work and sold Krispy Kream donuts to the community. They raised $1,500. With these funds, which had to be split with Krispy Kream, the team was able to have uniforms, and a new net.
Maldonado tried to think of all the people that rallied behind the new team – but there were a lot.
Melinda Stout, parent of Avilla student, was instrumental in scheduling and fundraising; Linda Fix provided meals, and many other volunteers helped with concessions and admissions; Ty Teegarden, school board president, donated a referee stand; Bruce Kilpatrick, set the poles with the help of Alan Martin, of Sarcoxie; and Jan Stuckey (who graduated from Avilla and is now a MSHSAA referee) came to practices and helped with some additional skills.
“It was phenomenal,” Maldonado said. “This team would never been possible without everyone involved.”
The team was able to compete in five games. Thomas Jefferson proved to be rival school.
The first time the Avilla team played Thomas Jefferson, (in Joplin) they lost by a considerable amount of points.
“It was intimidating – they have a huge, beautiful gym,” Maldonado said. “But it was motivating. We practiced every day and the girls pushed each other. They are an incredible group of kids … Two weeks later, we hosted TJ – and they weren't ready for us.”
Avilla won 25-23 the second game, and again 25-12. Avilla team captains Sierra Teegarden and Kenzie Conness both said that was a highlight of their short season.
Page 2 of 2 - “It was so great,” Conness said, who is seventh grader. “Everyone was screaming – we worked so hard for that.”
Teegarden said “you can bet” she'll be trying out next year for the Carthage High School volleyball team – and that the sport means a lot to her.
“It's everything,” she said. “I love it – coming into this year was a real challenge because everyone on the team was just learning the basics. It felt really good that Coach trusted me to be one of the captains to step up and show leadership.”
The story doesn't stop here.
Ginger Lewis, communication arts teacher at Avilla, gave an assignment to her students regarding the volleyball team's inspirational story.
The students wrote persuasive essays to local media outlets to have reporters spread the word about the school and community's story. Sixth grader Kennedy Spruce said she wrote a letter because she was proud of her small, but special school.
“They did an amazing job,” she said. “It makes me feel proud.”
John Hacker and Rebecca Haines at The Carthage Press received letters, which did not go unnoticed.
“The Carthage Press received four letters alone,” Haines said. “I was blown away by the students' writing and penmanship – they were incredibly persuasive. I'm very proud of this community and look forward to seeing how these young players do at the high school level.”
And that's how this article came to be.
“We have very supportive parents for both academics and sports,” Blake said. “It makes me very proud – I enjoy working with the parents and students here in Avilla. They have their priorities right on.”