By Walter Villa
Last Thursday, Avon (Avon, Ind.) completed the first undefeated regular season in school history, a testament to their talent, their diligence … and their belief.
The Orioles (33-0), who open the playoffs Wednesday night and are hoping to earn their first-ever state title early next month, have already accomplished much this season, including winning five matches after losing the first set and attaining a No. 8 POWERADE FAB 50 national ranking.
But they haven’t done it alone.
“Knowing that they are going to be there; we want to make them proud of us,” said 5-10 senior Katie Higginbotham, a fourth-year starter at outside hitter. “Without them, we’d be like, ‘What do we do now?’ ”
Higginbotham is referring to Avon’s cheering section, called the “Jersey Junkies.” It’s a group of a dozen or so boys from the high school – mostly members of the basketball team -- who have gone to every Avon volleyball match this season, home or away.
“It’s amazing to have them everywhere we go,” said 5-10 junior Kayla Springer, a starter at right-side hitter. “We’ve never had fans like that. I don’t think we would be undefeated without them.”
The ringleader of the Junkies is Austin “A.J.” Burgett, a 6-foot-9, 215-pound senior who has committed to play basketball for Notre Dame. Burgett said he and his buddies were bored when they got an inspiration.
“We wanted to pick a sport to cheer for,” Burgett said. “We chose volleyball.”
The boys wear neon green T-shirts that read “Jersey Junkies” on the front. Each Junkie has a number on the back of the shirt that corresponds to one of the Avon players.
Once the match begins, they take off their T-shirts and wear different jerseys. One boy may bring an Indiana Pacers jersey, another could bring a Chicago Bears jersey. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a jersey.
Probably the most popular thing the Junkies have done is create a mantra that they recite before and after matches. The chant has since been adopted for all the school’s sports teams.
The chant starts when one kid calls out a word or two and every Avon fan repeats it. Before the match, the chant goes:
“I (I) …
“I believe (I BELIEVE) …
“I believe that we (I BELIEVE THAT WE) …
“I believe that we will win (I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN).”
Following every win, the Junkies storm the court and -- together with the 35-40 girls from the varsity, JV and freshman teams -- they chant the same thing, except they say “I believe that we have won.”
Avon coach Scott McQueen, who said he gets “chills” when the kids do the chant, said he knew he had a special group of girls when the Orioles lost to Muncie Central (Ind.) in the 2010 playoffs.
The Orioles won the first set but then lost the next three, falling three wins short of a state title.
“Sometimes you look at your kids on the way home (from getting eliminated in the playoffs) and think, ‘Wow, they got over that quick,’ ” said McQueen, who is in his 10th season running the Avon program.
“But last year, they had a 1-hour, 45-minute bus ride home, and they were dead quiet the whole way.”
Higginbotham, who has committed to Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne, said she used the quiet time to focus on what she would do to improve in 2011.
“We were devastated,” she said. “We are so crazy together that it takes a lot to make us quiet. But that loss was terrible.
“I decided I was going to be a leader for the younger players on our team because they get nervous just like I did when I was a freshman.”
One of those freshmen is 6-3 outside hitter Beth Prince, who has received much acclaim for her power and talent.
But the Orioles pride themselves on having a balanced roster that also includes Madi Reeves, a 5-9 senior setter who has started since her sophomore year and has committed to Wayne State; Jill Steinmetz, a 6-1 senior middle hitter who has committed to play basketball at Grand Valley State; and Emily Graves, a 6-0 junior middle hitter.
McQueen said Higginbotham is his best all-around player, but 5-7 senior libero Allison Bexell was the team’s MVP in 2010, and he also praised defensive specialists Rebekah Strange, a 5-7 sophomore; and Brooke Peters, a 5-8 freshman.
Then there’s sophomore setter Rachel Griffin, whose older sister, Katie, still holds 13 Avon records, including the match, single-season and career marks for kills. Katie, a 6-2 outside hitter, is now a sophomore at Purdue, where she ranks fifth on this season’s team in kills.
McQueen said depth is his team’s biggest strength.
“That’s what’s so fun about this team,” he said. “These kids always put me in a good mood.”
The same can be said of the Jersey Junkies, who do a bunch of goofy things such as pretending to sit in a roller coaster, complete with the fastening of imaginary seat belts, the taking of imaginary curves and the scared faces as the “car” picks up steam.
The volleyball team, focused on the match, doesn’t notice the shenanigans. Usually.
“It’s come up a couple times when (McQueen) has called people out for looking into the stands,” Reeves said.
Added Higginbotham: “They’re hilarious. How can you not laugh?”