Building a program is much like building a bridge. A great one takes meticulous planning, lots of hard work, a little bit of luck and flawless execution. Underneath it all, though, both need a cornerstone, something upon which to build the rest.
For the Crimson Tide volleyball program, that cornerstone might well be the 2000 team that helped set the wheels in motion for the success the program has today. That trailblazing team provided a foundation of success that has motivated and inspired successive generations of Alabama players.
The 2000 season, the fifth for head coach Judy Green, was the turning point in the resurrection of a program that had begun with the hiring of Green in 1996.
Under her leadership, the Tide had gradually clawed its way up from a tough 5-31 season in 1996, Green’s first at the Capstone. The 1997 team won nine, the 1998 squad increased that total to 14 and the 1999 unit took the win total up to 17.
“Each year after I arrived we talked about continuing to lay a foundation,” Green said. “The group of seniors in 2000 had to lay that foundation as freshmen, which was a hard thing to ask five freshmen. But we knew that group would be able to do it, and every year they added a layer.”
Alabama in 1999 was a perfect example of the struggles a rebuilding program must face. The team was so close to putting it together, so close to taking that next step, but was just unable to get it done. The Tide went 3-7 in five-game matches during the season, making what could have been a breakout year into a finish of just over .500 volleyball.
“The ball just wouldn’t go our way,” Green said. “That 1999 season was the biggest building point for them to turn around and be successful the next year. In 2000, they were not going to let that happen again. That’s when I could see when this team would be really successful.”
A group of determined athletes who came together in the fall of 2000 were determined to reverse those fortunes and take the next step. It quickly became apparent that they would accomplish that mission.
The Tide exploded out of the gates, winning nine of its first 11 matches. The trend continued in SEC play, as Green’s troops ripped off five wins after an opening loss to perennial power Florida.
The team struggled briefly in mid-October, losing two out of three at one stretch, before another four-match win streak powered the Tide into November.
Entering the final few weeks of the season, Green and her team were in position to achieve what had been almost unthinkable just a few short seasons earlier: the Tide was within striking distance of its first ever Southeastern Conference division title.
Getting over those final hurdles would not be easy, however. Arkansas, who ended up finishing second in the division, avenged an earlier loss to the Tide on Nov. 5 when the Lady Backs handed Alabama a decisive 3-0 loss in Fayetteville.
The Tide had to work hard for its clinching win against Mississippi State in the CAVE on Nov. 10, eventually earning a hard-fought 3-2 victory over the Bulldogs, in what was a fitting end to the division title run. The five-game victory was Alabama’s fifth of the season, reversing the curse from 1999. Green’s 2000 team went 5-1 in five-game matches during the season, using the disappointments from earlier seasons to spur them on to victory.
“It was fitting to win that match 3-2, because of all the problems we had had the years before,” Green said. “It was just really cool to be able to see us pull that Mississippi State match out, it was like a war on every point in every game. Our team just had it that night and I knew they were going to do it. Sometimes your team just has it and you know they are going to do it and I felt it that night.”
Alabama finished its SEC slate with an easy 3-0 win over Ole Miss.
The 2000 Division title, for the first time in history, had found its way to Tuscaloosa. It was a moment that Green and her players had waited for so long, and after it was over, the celebration was something to remember.
“We had anticipated the celebration,” Green said. “So some of the parents had gone in and taped up plastic around our locker room. We found out on Friday night that we had clinched the title, because LSU had lost, and grape juice was being poured on everyone and the locker room was a mess. It was the first time that we could really feel we had won a championship.”
A few weeks later, the Tide players were actually able to put their hands on the trophy that had eluded them for so long.
“The pride that the seniors had getting that trophy at the SEC Tournament was just unbelievable,” Green said. “Our seniors wouldn’t even let me touch it, they wouldn’t let it go. Alison Lange slept with it, I think, for a few weekends. It was just so great to see that reward from all of that hard work.”
Unfortunately for the Tide, the season didn’t end quite as the team had hoped. A disappointing loss to LSU in the SEC Tournament ended the magical run.
But for the Alabama volleyball program, the bridge had been built. The work of that team, of that group of student-athletes, had paved the way for all of the success the Tide would earn in the coming years.
“Those five kids bought into a dream,” Green said. “They were going to be the group to turn the program around and they did just that. It was hard for them, it was grueling, especially early on. But in the second two years you could see it coming because I knew we had recruited the right kinds of kids. That group will always have a special place in my heart for what they did for this program.”
Her players, in turn, also credited Green with the vision and leadership needed to accomplish such an astounding turnaround.
“There were many growing pains and lessons learned along the way, but I believe we definitely achieved our goal,” Winning the 2000 Western Division Championship was the highlight of my career at Bama. I believe our team chemistry and Coach Green's dedication and guidance led us to the victory. It feels exceptional to have been an instrumental part of such a great accomplishment, one I will never forget.
At the end of the season, Green found a poem that helped express just what this special unit had accomplished. Entitled “The Bridge Builder”, the verses were perfect for the group that had indeed laid the foundation for the Alabama volleyball program.
The Bridge Builder
An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fears for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near,
"You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again must pass this way;
You have crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you a bridge at the eventide?"
The builder lifted his old gray head:
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building the bridge for him."
Those words perfectly described just what this remarkable group of athletes had done. Not only had they brought glory to themselves, but they had blazed a path for all who would follow in their footsteps.
“When I ran across that poem, it seemed to be so appropriate for them and it was what I wanted to say about that group,” Green said. “That’s how they will always be remembered by me after they hung through thick and thin with us. That team truly epitomized what the University of Alabama’s athletic tradition is all about.”
Just as in the poem, those who have followed have used that path and built new bridges. But for the Alabama volleyball program, the 2000 team will forever be the ones to credit with laying that first cornerstone.