2010 Woodruff Volleyball Team Blazed Bold Trail for Often Overlook Program
Moments That Changed Wolverine History: Part Three of a 12-Part Series Looking Back at Events Which Changed the Landscape of Woodruff Athletics
By Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Behind every great journey is always an intrepid group of pioneers inspired to reach newer and greater places than those who have gone before them.
History teaches that those journeys are not often easy or without their own unique trials and tribulations.
The 2010 Woodruff High School volleyball team dared to dream big.
Established in the mid-1980s, the Woodruff High volleyball program was not one used to success. Great players came and went and sure, there were good teams from time to time, but something always lacked. So close to the precipice of greatness, none of those Lady Wolverine teams ever quite reached the pinnacle. That is, until 2010.
For one magical season, over two decades of average coalesced into two months of an extraordinary odyssey that galvanized a school, inspired a town, and set the bar for future teams in a program growing into a consistent winner.
It just needed a start.
Aeriel (Wheeler) Condra-Bogan was a senior outside hitter on that 2010 team, and at 6-feet-3 inches tall, was by far the tallest player on the floor most nights. Condra-Bogan remembers that season well.
“Our team was special because it wasn’t so much about our skill levels, but the amount of heart each team member was putting into each match,” she said. “We wanted to win. We had a lot of competitiveness and drive to never give up on any ball. There were pictures of our team often taken by the newspapers, and you could see the amount of drive we had in our facial expressions; they were very intense. In comparison to other schools, we were nothing special as far as how many people played travel ball. We just had more will than they did to work hard, play hard, and win.”
To look at the 2010 Lady Wolverine volleyball team, you would have to forgive the average fan of being rather underwhelmed as well.
Aside from Condra-Bogan, no member of the starting six stood more than 5-foot-10. In a game which is predicated on success at the net, height is an advantage that typically leads to success. Shorter teams can struggle against taller opponents, but Woodruff possessed a group of 10 young ladies that were not interested in preconceived notions or accepted formalities.
They may not have been tall, but they were to a girl all elite athletes, and they were explosive leapers. It was a nice compensation that helped fuel a David versus Goliath mentality.
Fellow seniors Bria Stephens and Shae Gilliam could, as the old sports cliché says, jump out of the gym. Sophomore back row phenom Haleigh (Phillips) Bishop possessed a devastating serve and kill shot, Kelsey Crocker was as solid as they come at setter, and the ever-steady Annie Brasington had a knack for being wherever the ball was hit.
It was an already solid group of players, but in August of that year, and prior to the start of the season, the final pieces of the puzzle were added.
Two sisters, Jessica and McKayla Register, transferred to Woodruff from Southside Christian High School in Simpsonville. McKayla, the younger of the two, was an elite libero, that is, the defensive glue of any team charged with roaming the back row and keeping any and every loose ball alive. Jessica, the elder Register sister, was an elite middle hitter with a thunderbolt right arm and knuckleball serve that was nearly impossible to return.
“The Registers were exactly what we needed to take us to the next level,” recalled Stephens. They knew all the volleyball that we never really knew until they showed up. I was amazed that someone could connect with me and my vertical in order to get a kill.”
The Lady Wolverines started hot that season and never cooled down.
Woodruff breezed rather uneventfully through non-conference play, losing only once in a tournament, before starting their conference slate.
An unproven commodity even to that point, nobody gave the Lady Wolverines a serious chance to win the conference crown. In over twenty years of existence the Woodruff volleyball program had never won a region title, and with powerhouse Broome residing within the same conference, nobody really thought this group would either.
That is, until both teams finally met on the court.
It would be in the first meeting between the two that would see the Lady Wolverines suffer their only real setback, as the heavily favored Lady Centurions battered their way to a hard-earned, five-set victory. Undeterred, Woodruff went back to work, easily handling their next four opponents as their record stood at 13-2.
The Lady Wolverines’ first opponent following their defeat to Broome, Mid Carolina, would be the first to truly feel the wrath of a team now on a mission to prove everyone who doubted them wrong. That match, said Bishop, was a turning point for the team.
“As I can remember, I would say we really hit our stride at an away game with Mid-Carolina,” Bishop said. “We worked as a unified unit on the court that night and from that moment on, I knew then we had a team to win and go far.”
Every destination, however, requires taking one step at a time. With every step, the Wolverines’ stride grew less measured and more confident. There were amazing moments along the way.
Jessica Register, in a match against Union County, opened a set by serving for Woodruff. Register and the Lady Wolverines never gave up the ball, with Register serving an unheard of 25 consecutive points, most of which were ace serves that Union County players never had a chance to return.
That effort earned Register athlete of the week honors.
Condra-Bogan pointed to that moment as one of many that still stand out to her about a team that had become so cohesive and united, super glue couldn’t have formed a stronger bond.
And what great team does not also adhere to some crazy superstitions that convince you it is one of the driving forces behind your success?
“It was incredible,” said Condra-Bogan. “I had never seen anyone do that before. I also remember vividly blocking with Bria and although she was not as tall as me, she could jump. We were a brick wall and made it very difficult for teams to hit against. A funny moment I remember that was instrumental in our run, Kelsey (Crocker) wore the same pair of socks every game. They were never washed from the first game of the season. As crazy as that sounds, we all knew that her socks were important to our success and had to be worn every game.”
It was a given, then, that Crocker’s unwashed lucky socks would be on hand to give the Lady Wolverines solid footing when the region rematch with Broome rolled around on the season’s final day.
Be it skill, a will to succeed, or lucky footwear, whatever Woodruff did, worked. The Lady Wolverines turned the tables, beating Broome in five sets while coming from behind in the fifth set to force a winner-take-all tiebreaker match for the region title to be played at Dorman High School the following night.
By that point the train was simply rolling too fast to stop.
Woodruff downed Broome, this time in four sets, and captured the first region volleyball championship in school history. They had reached uncharted territory, but these Lady Wolverines were not satisfied by merely claiming one of the four tops seeds in the 2A play-offs. They had much larger goals before their journey would be complete.
“To us, we knew size didn’t matter,” noted Stephens. “We came to play. We may not have stood as tall as a lot of teams we played, but we knew how to play our game. We wanted it more and we would always try to execute every play with that in mind.”
Woodruff started their postseason run brimming with confidence and it manifested on the court as the Lady Wolverines easily dispatched Pendleton in round one.
After dropping the first game against solid Gilbert and Liberty teams in the second and third rounds, the Lady Wolverines roared back to win three straight sets in each of those matches to advance to the upper-state championship, another first in the history of the program.
In their way stood Keenan, the state’s number two ranked team with a starting line-up of giant players all standing over six feet tall. For a team who had played the role of underdog all season, the Lady Wolverines were simply not going to back down after coming all of that way.
Woodruff won the first set, a thriller, 25-23, before the Lady Wolverines appeared to falter. Keenan took sets two and three to force the Lady Wolverines’ backs to the wall of elimination. Just as they had all season, though, their competitive light shone through as bright as ever.
Stephens opened the fourth set with an emphatic kill and Jessica Register served three straight aces as Woodruff scored the game’s first six points en route to a 25-13 set victory to force a fifth and deciding game, played to 15 points.
Keenan held a 9-8 lead late, and with points and opportunity waning, Stephens saw an opening. Crocker gave a clean set, Stephens took aim, and in an instant slammed home a kill shot that reverberated through the small Woodruff gym packed with close to 1,000 partisan spectators clad in Maroon and Gold.
The Lady Wolverines’ magic of 2010 had captured their hearts as well, and as the roar of the crowd swelled to a crescendo, Stephens hammered home a second kill to give Woodruff the lead.
They would not trail again.
“I knew all we needed was one good kill to get us up and it did just that,” Stephens said. “We knew what we we’re capable of and we all wanted that trip to state more than anything. It felt amazing coming out on top with my girls. Coming back and winning made us feel so unstoppable.”
Stephens would give Keenan two for the road, as it were, with kills for the final two points as a delirious crowd swarmed the court, and their pioneering heroes, in a sea of jubilance. Woodruff volleyball fans had never been this far either, and with the 2010 Lady Wolverines navigating the way, they had joyfully been along for the ride.
Bishop remembers that night in stark detail.
“I can remember that night vividly, just like it was yesterday,” she said. “That game against Keenan was the most exhausting five-set match I ever played in my volleyball career. It took every ounce of energy we had. The crowd was so resoundingly loud, vibrant, and lively. The crowd is what I believed fueled us to push and fight the battle to victory.”
It is tradition at Woodruff High that when a team wins a championship, they will have their photo displayed on the wall inside the gym alongside other champions of yesteryear. Along the back wall, high above the court, resides a large, framed print of the Lady Wolverines’ 2010 team, etched in posterity for everyone, including today’s young players, to see.
On it are inscribed the words ‘2010 Upper-state Champions.’
Woodruff’s journey did not reach the destination they ultimately desired. Their road came to an end the following week against Bishop England in the state championship match, nothing more than a tenth consecutive notch on the Bishops’ belt of titles that would grow to eighteen in a row and only just ended in 2018.
For the Lady Wolverines, however, that season was more than just another number on a countless list of accolades accumulated by a private school monopoly holder. For the 2010 Woodruff volleyball team, their journey was about breaking new ground and breaking down the barriers of a program that had for so long been relegated to that of a side note in the storied history of one of South Carolina’s most successful small school athletic programs.
That was their victory, and in that regard, the 2010 volleyball team became Woodruff’s champions regardless of whose name wound up on the state title trophy.
“To have a volleyball team that won not only the first region title in school history, but to host and win the first upper-state title in our gym, really gave those young ladies a sense of validation,” said then-Woodruff athletic director Scott Lawson. “That was a tremendous thing and looking back, to see our fans cram the gym that night (against Keenan) and rally around that team was just unbelievable.”
In the decade since that incredible 2010 season, Woodruff volleyball has been a steady competitor, fielding solid play-off teams every season. Perhaps, one day, a new group of Lady Wolverines will bridge the final gap, bring home a state championship, and add a second photo in the gym beside that of the 2010 team.
Bishop hopes so.
“I hope we set the legacy that nothing is impossible,” Bishop said. “With perseverance, determination, and teamwork, you can exceed limits you never thought possible.”