In the 33 matches leading up to Saturday's sub-state tournament, the Lawrence High volleyball team had won just seven times.
Saturday afternoon at Free State High, the Lions won the only two matches of the season that mattered - a 27-25 and 25-20 victory against No. 1-seeded Free State in round one and a 25-16, 18-25 and 25-15 triumph against No. 5 Shawnee Mission North in the sub-state title match.
The Lions' eighth and ninth victories of the season produced the school's first trip to the Class 6A state tournament since 2006. Coincidentally, the Lions also upset the higher-seeded Firebirds at sub-state that year, too.
"At the very first quad of the year, we went 1-2, and after that I really tried to emphasize that the only thing that matters is that we peak at the right time," second-year LHS coach Stephanie Magnuson said.
Saturday, her team reached the summit of Mount Everest.
The Lions' sub-state success truly was a Cinderella story. LHS entered the tournament as the No. 8 seed and figured to have little chance against FSHS, which had swept the Lions in three sets less than 48 hours earlier.
So rather than watching more film before the 2 p.m. matchup, Magnuson and her squad chose to loosen things up with a Cinderella-themed breakfast. The girls ate off of Cinderella party plates, wiped their mouths with Cinderella napkins and then wiped the floor with the Firebirds in straight sets.
For good measure, all 12 LHS girls who suited up tacked temporary Cinderella tattoos to their bodies.
"It's just a Cinderella story," LHS senior and Kansas University signee Tayler Tolefree said. "This just proves that anything's possible when you put your heart into it. But this started before today. It started Thursday after we lost to Free State for the third time this season. We just all decided that we were tired of losing like that and really focused on getting this win."
From the outset, the Lions were the more aggressive, more energetic bunch. Behind strong serving from senior Hillary Wehymer, LHS jumped to a 6-1 lead. That set the tone for the rest of the match.
Even when the Lions struggled - which wasn't often - they managed to keep control of the scoreboard. Free State tied the first set at 7 and 22, and actually led briefly, 23-22 and 25-24. But the Firebirds were not able to take control.
Senior outside hitter Melissa Burch, who led FSHS in kills, with seven, almost gave the Firebirds the first-set victory, but her blast down the line on match point went wide. LHS tallied the next two points on a Katlyn Green ace and a Tolefree kill to win the set.
The second set was much closer throughout, but even then Free State never managed to play from in front for very long. The Firebirds' 17-15 lead was the first time all day that they led by more than a single point. LHS responded with a 10-3 run to close the match.
Jasmyn Turner and Mary Coldsnow did all of the offensive damage for the Lions during that stretch, and Tolefree owned the net with her blocking.
"We have total confidence in Tayler," Wehymer said. "She's our captain. But if we can't get the ball to her, we have great support around her. We've practiced for this moment since Day 1, and today we did it."
Although the victory against Free State was certainly a highlight of their season, it was not the highlight of the Lions' day. That came in the second match, when they disposed of SM North in three sets to qualify for the state tournament. North jumped to leads of 5-0 and 7-0, respectively, in the first two sets. But each time the Lions battled back.
Behind more powerhouse play from Coldsnow, Tolefree and Lillian Schoenwise, the Lions won the first set, 25-16. LHS appeared on its way to victory in Set 2, but hit a dry spell in the middle and fell, 25-18.
That set up the do-or-die third set, where the Lions made sure they did not fall behind by setting Tolefree for the first kill of the set and a 1-0 lead. The quick start was exactly what LHS needed to take control.
Lawrence High trailed 2-1 early, but never trailed again after that.
"With the sub-state championship on the line, we just kept saying, 'One day or one week,'" Tolefree said. "And we didn't want just one more day to play together, we wanted one more week."
The Lions earned that and now will open play at the Class 6A state tournament Friday in Topeka. Because of their 9-26 record, the Lions likely will be the No. 8 seed when the pairings are released today. But that's of little concern to Magnuson or the girls on her team.
"The biggest thing for me is that they believe in themselves now," Magnuson said. "I've believed in them since the jump, and I'm just so proud of every one of them."