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Kennedy Phelan leads Fayetteville volleyball to Class 6A three-peat

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Kennedy Phelan had 37 assists, 18 digs and seven kills Saturday to lead Fayetteville to their third straight state title. (Photo courtesy of Kennedy Phelan)

When Kennedy Phelan and the Fayetteville volleyball team walked into Bank Ozk Arena in Hot Springs, Ark., they felt at home. The stage for the Class 6A state championship was just how they left it.

On Saturday, the two-time defending state champions set out to defend their title, and with Phelan at the helm, the Bulldogs won 3-0 (25-19, 25-21, 25-18) against Southside for their third title in a row. Phelan was once again named state tournament MVP after registering 37 assists, 18 digs and seven kills.

“The last two years, it was kind of a dog fight. We didn’t know who was going to win,” said the senior setter, who was also named JWS Player of the Week in the aftermath of the state title. “This year, we’ve kind of had a target on your back. It was a different kind of pressure when you’re the seniors, you’re undefeated, you’re supposed to win this game. There were a little bit of nerves.”

The Bulldogs have quite the impressive resume, crossing off every goal they set at the start of the season. The team was consistently ranked in the top 25 nationally, most recently landing at No. 7 in the JWS volleyball team rankings.

Fayetteville was undefeated against Arkansas teams, taking home the third-place trophy in the Durango Fall Classic, one of the nation’s premier volleyball tournaments. And on Saturday, they capped it off with another state title.

As the team succeeded, so did Phelan. She led the team with 977 assists and 80 aces while finishing third in digs (277) and hitting percentage (.334), recording 217 kills. With 3,972 career assists, she walks away as the Bulldogs’ all-time assists leader.

Phelan has been a Bulldog all her life. Her mom and head coach, Jessica Phelan, began coaching at Fayetteville while pregnant with Kennedy.

“I know for her, being a Bulldog and being a part of Fayetteville volleyball was important. Long before she put that jersey on, she was a part of the team,” Jessica said. “I think for her, it’s been a culmination of her childhood.”

Kennedy became accustomed to the mother-daughter, coach-player dynamic at a young age.

“In practice, she’s Coach. She’s Phelan. She’s not mom,” she said. “It’s been that way for a long time. That’s made it easy.”

Jessica is a volleyball legend in Arkansas — more specifically, a Southeastern Conference legend. She was a middle blocker at the University of Arkansas and the most decorated volleyball player in the program.

“I, unfortunately, didn’t inherit her height,” Kennedy said with a laugh. “She’s 6-foot-1. I’m 5-foot-7.”

Kennedy says it’s easy to be overlooked as an undersized player, but she’s used it to her advantage, focusing on what she could be in the absence of height.

“I was going to try to run my offense perfectly,” Kennedy said. “I was going to make it up in every other area.”

Now, with Kennedy’s storied high school career over, she turns her attention to the club season, which will prepare her to become a Florida State Seminole. She’ll play both indoor and beach volleyball for FSU.

When she takes the court in Tallahassee, she’ll feel at home with head coach Chris Poole, the former volleyball coach at the University of Arkansas.

But for now, as the mother and daughter take time to bask in their third consecutive state title, it’s a bittersweet moment.

“It’s definitely something I’ve waited a long time for,” Kennedy said. “Not everyone gets to share the court with their best friends and their mom. I’m definitely going to miss it.”

“As a mom, I’m really proud of the career she’s had and the leader she is and the relationship she’s had with her teammates,” Jessica added. “Now I get to be her fan, so that’s fun, too.”

Nika Anschuetz is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @nlanschuetz.