ARLINGTON — Last season was supposed to be a milestone campaign for the Arlington High School volleyball team.
The Eagles raced out to a 7-0 start and were primed to make their second state-tournament appearance in three years — a big leap for a program that’s only trip to state before 2016 was 20 years prior.
The Eagles were battle-tested, proving their grit on the court with a victory in straight sets over Wesco 3A/2A runner-up Stanwood — which had dropped just two sets all season before the match — and tightly contested five-set losses to eventual league champion Snohomish and Class 3A state qualifier Oak Harbor.
But Arlington’s bid for a trip to the state tournament was derailed in the season’s final week. Three of the squad’s juniors were dismissed from the team for violating team rules. Everything the Eagles accomplished in the regular season became a footnote to the season’s turbulent ending.
“It was bad. After everything that happened, we were just, like, completely shattered,” senior middle blocker Julia Parra said. “We were getting stuff from (our peers) saying that we weren’t gonna be good anymore. I know for me, I got that a lot, which was really hard.”
After picking up a win in its first match after the dismissals, the Eagles closed the season 0-3, including back-to-back losses in straight sets at the Class 3A District 1 tournament that ended their season. The team hadn’t dropped a match in less than five sets prior to the district tournament.
“It was devastating,” Arlington coach Whitney Williams said. “It was less about realizing our goals and aspirations (of making it to state) were gone, which I was really proud of actually that that wasn’t necessarily the biggest concern. The concern was about the betrayal that the team felt from those girls that they didn’t protect the team.
“… It was just tough. It was really emotional, and like I said, it was a deeper than just, ‘Oh, our chance at state was taken away.’”
It certainly wasn’t the ending the Eagles imagined after dropping just three sets through their first seven matches, but the team is eager to the write the next chapter of its story during the 2019 season.
Two of the players dismissed from last year’s squad have returned after regaining the trust of their teammates, and Arlington is eager to recapture the form it had prior to last year’s upheaval.
“It would be a huge deal for us,” senior outside hitter Reese Talbot said. “Everybody is all in, and we all want to go to state. Everybody is just working their butts off to get there. From what happened, working as hard as we did to get back, it would mean the world.”
Talbot and senior teammate Arianna Bilby — a first-team All-Wesco 3A selection at outside hitter as a sophomore in 2017 — were two of the players who missed Arlington’s final four matches last season. Although they weren’t able to play, they attended the remainder of the team’s games and showed their support from the stands.
“It was really, really hard for me. I knew that I should have been out there. That was a hard feeling for me,” Bilby said. “But I was still here for my team. I sat at districts and rooted them on. I’m just really happy to be back. It was really hard for me, but getting those relationships back, man, that was the biggest part. I definitely feel like we’re there.”
It wasn’t an easy process, but Williams said the pair did everything they needed to do to find themselves back in the good graces of the locker room.
“We had some pretty honest and trying conversations with them and their parents and talked about some things that needed to be done in order to regain trust,” Williams said. “They each committed to doing whatever they needed to do to get back to what we could be, so that was huge.”
That included addressing the team individually and answering any questions their teammates had.
“It took a little bit for sure,” Parra said of the squad welcoming back its former teammates. “We’re like a family. Families fight. They’re like my best friends now. It definitely took a little bit, but I’m super excited for this season.”
“Coming back in, we all had to work really hard to make those relationships strong again,” Bilby said. “I think that overall all of our characters bond really well together, and that a mistake in high school doesn’t really define who you are. Getting those relationships back, I mean they took time. But we’re 100% there now, and it’s a good feeling to be back in 100% with everybody.”
And now that those relationships have mended, Arlington is looking to take the next step for a program that has been on the rise since Williams, an Arlington alum, joined as head coach in 2014.
Arlington won just seven matches in the three seasons before Williams came back to her alma mater. The program immediately found itself on the upswing with an 11-win 2014 campaign that notched a Wesco 3A North title. Two seasons later, Arlington made its run to the 3A state tournament. Talbot and Bilby traveled to the Yakima Valley SunDome with the team as freshmen.
A second trip to state in four seasons would be the ultimate culmination for a team that Williams said is ready to write a “story of redemption” this year.
And it would be an especially big moment for Talbot and Bilbly.
“For us, as seniors, leaving that stamp on the program is a huge deal, especially for me and Ari not being able to finish out the rest of our season last year,” Talbot said. “I feel like this is our comeback season. We have a lot to prove. I feel like that’s part of the pressure we have on us, but I feel like we’re doing big things.”