After advancing to the round of 16 as freshmen, the state quarterfinals as sophomores and the state semifinals as juniors, expectations were fairly straightforward for the Prince of Peace volleyball team’s senior core.
The Lady Eagles carried a championship-or-bust mentality into the 2019 season and responded with perhaps the best campaign in their history — complete with a program-record 38 wins, capped by a 3-0 sweep of San Antonio Christian on Nov. 9 to capture the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools 5A state title.
“Winning as seniors feels more fun because you’re going out with a bang,” said Evy Eckensberger, Prince of Peace senior. “You’re sad volleyball is over, but you can’t think of a better way to have it end. Just leaving your mark on the program is really special as seniors. The accomplishment was worth it.”
It was a gratifying moment for the Lady Eagles, who are paced by a senior core that has been largely intact since their childhood days perusing the Plano Sports Association hard courts. That connection has carried over into high school, with players like seniors Bella Loretto, Raella Papes, Trinity Casey, Morgan Daley and Eckensberger all suiting up Prince of Peace together since their sophomore years; Eckensberger and Papes played on varsity as freshmen and senior Chloe Mark joined the mix last year as a junior.
That experience together has forged a chemistry all too vital in a sport as dependent on communication as volleyball and raised the bar for the team’s 2019 swan song.
However, that first meant coming to grips with a missed opportunity in 2018 after Prince of Peace was ousted from the postseason in a five-set loss to Austin St. Michael’s in the state semifinals — a match where the Lady Eagles won the first two sets.
“It made us focus more on that third set,” Daley said. “After the first two sets at state, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Right here.’ We weren’t going to let that third set go again, we were going to finish it right here.”
The Lady Eagles did just that, dispatching of The Brook Hill School and San Antonio Christian in straight sets at the state tournament and not allowing either team to eclipse 18 points in a single frame.
It was a two-day showcase of one of the hallmark traits of this particular Prince of Peace squad, which dedicated plenty of time this season to sharpening their focus and improving the mental side of their respective skill sets.
“The volleyball talent was definitely there — it was all about managing emotions and the mental game. We focused a lot on that,” said Heidi Henke, Prince of Peace head coach. “I’ve had several people tell me since the championships how our team never panicked. We worked so much on that and never letting the highs get you too high or the lows getting you too low.”
Henke made that initiative a routine part of team practices, working the Lady Eagles through drills that stressed positivity, consistency and body language. Fresh off her third state title with Prince of Peace, Henke understands the importance of mental fortitude — citing that same quality with her two previous championship ball clubs.
It helps to have a veteran roster capable of carrying out that vision, and with years of experience playing together, that bond forged a motivation shared across Prince of Peace’s entire senior core.
“Most of us are seniors that have been playing together in PSA since the second grade, so this was our last year,” Eckensberger said. “In past years, we would always talk about how there’s always next year, but knowing that this was the end really pounded it into our heads that there was no next year and we had to get it done.”
“Something our coaches talked with us about was fighting for one more day together,” Casey added. “We were playing for one more week or one day of playing with each other. That affected me a lot because it really sunk in that we weren’t going to be playing with each other again, so each day mattered that much more.”
The Lady Eagles didn’t let that time go to waste in the postseason, sweeping three of their four opponents — with the lone exception being a 3-2 win over Fort Worth Christian in the state quarterfinals. Following that victory up with two commanding results at the state tournament, the celebrations were euphoric, complete with a dog pile and a raucous crowd on hand. Henke noted that prior to state, Prince of Peace filled two fan buses for the event and that 87 students made the trip south to cheer on the Lady Eagles — plus many others watching at home on an internet stream.
“Even with they hand you the medals and put them around your neck, there’s still this feeling where you can’t believe it, like ‘We just did this. We just won,’” Henke said.
“We had been talking about winning state since our sophomore year when we were all together. That was our endgame,” Loretto added.
It was also one that cemented perhaps the best season in program history. On top of the TAPPS 5A state championship, the Lady Eagles ended their year on an 18-game winning streak and without a loss since Aug. 31, as well as the No. 1 state ranking among all stateside private schools by MaxPreps.
Eckensberger, Papes, Loretto and Daley were all named to the TAPPS 5A all-tournament team at state, capping their respective high school careers with a long-awaited state championship. Their legacy left on the Prince of Peace volleyball program carries a weight that’s just as long-lasting.
“Probably more so than any of the other championship teams, they embody what it means to be a family,” Henke said. “Sometimes they’ll fight like sisters but they love each other like sisters, and there’s never a time when they’ll let something divide them.
“Talent-wise, they’re at the top of what we’ve had, but they’re a collective unit. We’ve never had to rely on one or two players. They all pull their own weight and they all love each other.”