BECKVILLE – The fans lingered a little longer at the gym inside Beckville High School on Tuesday.

At many of the Ladycat volleyball games this season, they have had to arrive early to find a seat. That was the case for this match against White Oak.

When the bleachers filled up, a few people stood on the sidelines. It’s what you do to get a glimpse when your team is 35-0.

Beckville has always had a respected volleyball program, but never quite had a season like this one. It rolled through opponents with machine-like precision, even those from much larger schools. Tuesday, one game stood between the Ladycats and perfection.

After the seniors were honored with roses, cheers and well-wishes, the game began. Immediately, Beckville scored the first five points and the outcome of the game was never in question. After senior Hannah Humphries delivered the final boom, the team came together, jumping with exuberance. Parents came to congratulate their kids, students to celebrate with their friends and almost everyone to shake coach Cherry Downs’ hand and commend her for leading this group to the best season in Beckville’s history.

After enjoying the frenzy a bit longer, Downs went back to her office. She had a chance to reflect.

“To expect 36-0 never crossed my mind,” Downs said. “To be at this point in our season and have no losses is an indescribable, amazing feeling.”

But how did Beckville get here?

Beckville celebrates its undefeated season after a sweep of White Oak on Tuesday.

***

Beckville doesn’t seem like the kind of place for a volleyball powerhouse.

But to understand Beckville’s success is to understand the town itself. The population was 834 at the 2016 census. The high school can be found off a farm to market road not far from where cattle grazes. Many of the players travel to neighboring cities when they want something to do.

It’s the quintessential quaint Texas town.

Riley Seegers, a middle hitter and defensive specialist for the team, said that is part of Beckville’s appeal, though.

“It’s different,” she said. “Small. Really small. You know everybody in the school. There’s not anyone who doesn’t fit in. Everyone has a place here.”

In sports, teams throw around the word “family” so often that it loses its meaning. With the exception of Humphries, who moved to Beckville her freshman year, the whole varsity team has been playing with each other since sixth grade.

So, when Beckville talks about a family atmosphere, it doesn’t seem vapid. Humphries can explain it best.

When she showed up her freshman year, it was daunting to fit in with a group of girls who already had so much chemistry.

“Biggest challenge was definitely moving here and learning how to work together,” she said. “Just a new person on the court with them because they have played together since they were little. It was definitely a challenge getting to know everybody and how everybody plays and how we all worked together.”

The Ladycats welcomed her into the group. Four years later, she is one of the most important pieces on the team, a hitter who packs an innate ability to deliver a powerful kill.

She also found her best friends in her teammates. Not only do they spend hours working toward getting better at volleyball, but they also spend weekends at each others houses just hanging out.

“Everybody is friends with everybody,” she said. “On our team, everybody’s mom’s are just like my mom.

“They treat us like family.”

Hannah Humphries moved from Carthage to Beckville her freshman year. The already tight-nit group welcomed her with open arms.

***

Beckville is loud.

The players stomp. They yell. They cheer. Especially after big plays.

Anyone who has watched a game of volleyball can attest that this behavior isn’t out of the ordinary. For the Ladycats, though, it’s something more: intimidation.

Beckville has to get creative. It’s at a major disadvantage most times it plays. Its tallest player, Miranda Mize, is only 5-10. Although that might be tall compared to the average high school girl, it’s not usually a good sign in the volleyball world.

“Everybody we play has somebody bigger than us,” Downs said.

Often times, Beckville faces teams with players who are 6-2. Although those teams intimidate physically, Beckville plays the mental game. Cheers, especially after big kills, can be debilitating to team’s momentum.

“It gets all of us,” Seegers said. “You can tell when we’re being loud, our energy level for sure goes up.”

It’s so beneficial that Downs even incorporates it in practice. In some scrimmages, teams can be awarded extra points if they come together and make noise.

“Being a team, we have an offensive plan in mind,” she said. “They come together and they talk about that. That’s part of this game is to be loud and to have fans that are loud and we get that done.”

It’s worked to their advantage. Despite being 3A, the Ladycats have beaten a few 6A schools, including Tyler Lee and Longview. They have lost only three sets the entire season.

Even when they see the 6-2 player, the Ladycats aren’t intimidated. They play enough volleyball to have confidence in themselves. Downs said this team has been the most focused on volleyball in her six years as coach.

Although other teams might have made softball or basketball a priority, this group loves volleyball. They play year-round and all for the same club team, only strengthening the already tight bond. Downs is always there to support them, making volleyball coach a year-round job for her. It’s something she loves, and thanks her husband, Kyle, for being supportive of.

It’s tough to beat a team that not only knows the game itself, but also each player’s strengths and weaknesses.

“We all trust each other and know each other’s abilities,” Humphries said. “It helps a lot.”

Beckville coach Cherry Downs thinks this could be the Beckville team to not only make the state tournament, but win it.

***

Banners line the walls in Beckville’s gym, highlighting the past successes of volleyball teams.

Beckville is rich in volleyball tradition, one of the main reasons Downs accepted the job six years ago.

The banners also serve as a harsh reminder of what the Ladycats haven’t accomplished.

Beckville has never been to the state tournament. It has, however, come excruciatingly close.

The Ladycats have lost in the regional finals the past two seasons. Luckily, the group of seniors they have now also played on varsity as sophomores. Downs is hopeful the experience from the past two seasons will help in the playoffs this year.

Beckville begins with a first round matchup against West Rusk at Spring Hill High School at 6 p.m. Monday.

Downs also said she hopes the pain of falling short the past two years will be in her players’ minds this time around. She made her team watch that game to show how far they have come since then.

“I want them to watch it and I want them to remember the pain that they felt and the heartache that it’s over,” she said. “We’ve got to do better than that this year.”

This season hasn’t been easy on the Ladycats. Downs, like most coaches would in this situation, has preached the “one game at a time” mantra. But Humphries said as much as they tried to ignore the buzz around their team, it was always there.

“I think it’s definitely in the back of our minds every time we step on the court,” she said. “We try not to just center around that all the time because that could throw us off.”

The main goal has always been the state tournament. Now that the regular season is over, there is no more talk of keeping the undefeated season alive. Beckville isn’t alone in the pressure. Everyone is in the same boat. One loss and it’s over.

Downs has felt she has had teams in the past that could achieve the goal of state but each time they fell just short.

This time, though, will be different. And they won’t stop there.

“This is the year we can get there,” she said. “We can get there and win it all.”