Rehearsing an important speech to give to her volleyball team, Sylacauga senior Mackenzie Bowen couldn’t help but feel nervous.
This was going to set the tone for the season to come. It had to be perfect.
She had to be perfect.
After all, she was the one who got the school’s permission to lead her teammates through practices until the school hired a new coach.
“Then when the time came, I just threw something together,” Bowen said. “I don’t really remember what I said. I think the hardest part was telling myself that it was going to be OK that we don’t have a coach, but then proving my actions to show it. Because I was worried a little bit deep down inside.”
Those worries proved to be just that and nothing more. On Thursday, Sylacauga (21-5) will host the Class 5A, Area 8 tournament just a year removed from the school’s first losing season since 2012.
Bowen met her new coach, Rebecca Paterson, within a week of her first solo practice. By then, Bowen’s reputation had already preceded her.
“I’m literally getting chills just thinking about her,” Paterson said. “Like, even before I was even hired, they talked about her. They said you have this one senior who is bringing the team together over the summer, running practice. You know, wanting to be in the gym, wanting what is best for her team.”
After Paterson met for the first time June 9, Bowen asked her new coach if they could grab coffee. They connected instantly and ended up talking for two hours.
That relationship would prove important as it would take Paterson about 2½ weeks to move from Tennessee.
“She would text me, ‘What do you want us to work on,’ and I would send her the practice plan,” Paterson said. “She would text me or call me after practice, ‘Hey, this went well, we really didn’t know how to do that,' or this went good, or we learned this and all that. So she was running it before there was even a coach.”
The team captain still remembers how much pressure she felt to make sure those first few practices, the ones before Paterson was hired, were worthwhile. Bowen didn’t want to be the one wasting everyone’s time.
Back then, she spent time researching drills designed to help the team perform better during extended sequences. Those really cost the team last season.
“It was scary because I didn’t want them to not believe in me, to not trust me,” Bowen said. “And I wanted them to realize that I wanted the best in them and the best for them, and that is why I was working hard and getting the practices ready, but it was scary because I am not one to always speak out, so I had to make sure that I was staying on my A-game and holding everybody else to the same expectations.”
The heart of the team
Because Bowen is a setter, it would be natural for her to emerge as a leader. The setter dictates the offense, and in addition, Bowen is the team's only senior.
But Bowen herself is quick to shoot that down. In the past, she preferred to lead by example. Leading with her voice was almost unthinkable. Even her mother, Melissa Bowen, said she’s pleasantly surprised with the role her daughter took with the team this season.
“She wanted to step up and try to be that leader, be a good example to these younger girls that volleyball was important to her and for it to be important to the girls,” Melissa Bowen said. “She wanted them to see that through her, what it meant to her and she had to get them on board with her enthusiasm about it.”
When the team drags, as it did during the county championship match, Paterson said she often relies on the spark coming from Bowen, who she describes as the heart of Sylacauga’s team.
“‘Mack, you take them,’” Paterson said, recalling what she often says. “‘You get them in a huddle. You get them going because what I’m saying isn’t working.’ I said, ‘They need you.’ And she does it no problem. I mean, she just goes in there and says what she needs to say. I don’t know what she says to them. I let that be her, and it works.”
A season to remember
Statistically, Bowen is already ahead of last year's pace with more than 230 assists, 86 digs and 50 aces. She is pleased to be about 15 aces ahead of last year’s finish, but she insists the credit for the uptick in assists belongs to her hitters.
But the biggest thrill came Sept. 25, as the Aggies secured the biggest win of Bowen’s career, completing an undefeated run in the county tournament to claim the championship over Munford.
“Just pure joy on her face,” Melissa Bowen said. “Excited, not just excited for her. … It’s not just about her. I’ve always said this about her. She likes the light to shine through her and not on her. So it was, 'Look what we did.'”
Talk of a county championship first came up back in June when Bowen and Paterson got coffee together.
Bowen was pretty blunt that day. The Aggies wanted to win the county tournament, check. However, Bowen didn’t stop there.
The team wanted to win the area tournament as well.
“We are finally reaching our goals, so remembering that this is what we have worked hard for all summer long. … Knowing we can do it, it really boosts our confidence for the next goals that we want to achieve,” Bowen said.
Sylacauga will have the chance to claim the area crown at home Thursday, beginning with a match against Talladega at 4 p.m.
If the Aggies win that one, they'll secure their place in the playoffs and advance to the championship round scheduled for 7 p.m. that same evening.
“It is definitely not what I expected,” Bowen said Monday, reflecting on her senior year. “But it is everything that I hoped for. … I never dreamed of having a new coach my senior year, but it has been really good, and I couldn’t imagine playing with a better team my senior year. Because these girls, one simple word, they are the best. They work hard, they love each other, and we all love the sport so much.”