Sonoraville's volleyball players thought they were all set for a promising high school season when in July senior teammate Bre Horner's mother, Sabrina, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The news could've been anything from distracting to devastating for a team that had such high hopes for the year. Instead, it has became a rallying point.
The Phoenix, ranked seventh in Georgia's PrepCountry.com Class AAA coach's poll, are 24-5 in the season they've dedicated to Sabrina Horner. They're 5-0 in Region 4 and wrap up their region regular season today by hosting Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and Adairsville. The first match is at 5 p.m.
Coach Trace Vaughn said it was a "pretty emotional moment" when the team met and agreed to the dedication.
"I was so shocked," Bre Horner said. "It was the sweetest thing ever. It touched me."
Counting the junior varsity, which has a record of 17-1, there are 21 players in Sonoraville's program. And although Carrie Cheeks and coach's daughter Kristi Vaughn are Horner's only classmates and Haley Ponder is the only junior, a bond exists throughout the grade levels.
The upperclassmen are depended on the most for production on the floor. Sophomores Delaney Bell, Becca Cheeks, Emalie Hicks and Savannah Wilbanks also have been key contributors.
Every player on Sonoraville's team is also a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Coach Vaughn said the girls hold Bible study classes on their own before practices, and their battle cry when they break a huddle is "I love you."
"They're very supportive," Horner said of her teammates. "They're there for me. We're pretty close."
Coach Vaughn said Sonoraville boosters Bob and Susan Williams had a daughter who died from cancer a few years ago, and they have maintained connections with Erlanger hospital, where she was treated. Vaughn decided to bring his team to Chattanooga and visit the hospital before the season started to help educate them on cancer and its consequences.
"A girl there shared her story about cancer," Kristi Vaughn said of the trip. "She stood up out of nowhere and showed a lot of bravery for a teenager. I think it made us aware to be thankful for what we have and don't take anything for granted."
The Phoenix returned much of the talent from last year's team that reached the Super Six in their classification. But Coach Vaughn said they haven't taken for granted that they would be good again.
Their only loss through the first 21 matches was Aug. 17 to Rockdale County, the No. 10-ranked team in Class AAAAAA, but Coach Vaughn had made sure there would be no complacency heading to postseason by scheduling them to play in the St. Pius X playday on Sept. 14. That's where the other four losses took place - all to teams ranked in the top four in their classifications.
"We've never challenged one of our teams like that in the regular season before," Coach Vaughn said. "We decided to take a shot with this team. We started a little slow that day, but we felt like we pretty much played with those teams at least. In our last match we took a set off Eagle's Landing, which is a perennial power, so we left there a little more enthused than we were early on."
Horner said the playday was a learning experience and showed the players what they needed to work on. And it seems that learning experiences, like the trip to Erlanger, have brought this already close team even closer.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing how far we can go." Kristi Vaughn said. "If we keep working as hard as we're working and work together as a team, I can see us achieving our goal of a state championship."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.