Ava Keenan wants to win every game, but Tuesday's area tilt against West Forsyth carried a little extra meaning.
That's because Denmark's senior libero played at West as a freshman, before Denmark High School opened in 2018. So, whenever one of her serves hit the ground for an ace, her teammates made a note to be especially loud. And after Dominae Jordan's final kill secured Denmark's 3-1 win over West, Keenan found herself in the middle of a swarm of Danes, celebrating the program's first Area 6-7A victory.
It's a win that's been years in the making.
"It's been really fun to watch us grow over the years," Keenan said. "That was my sophomore year, and it was a little bit disappointing to play them and lose so badly. It's amazing that here we are three years later and I'm beating the program that I was once in. That's an amazing feeling, and I'm excited to see them grow even further, even after I'm gone."
Denmark dropped the first set 25-23 before rallying to take the final three sets, 25-16, 25-13, 25-20.
"They've been working so hard all year," Denmark head coach Jaime Maxey said. "We are really young, so we've been making a lot of silly mental errors that you would expect from younger kids. To see that hard work and that determination finally pay off, I couldn't be happier with how they played tonight. They competed every point of the match."
Jordan led the Danes with 11 kills, while middle blocker Ella Collier added five kills and eight blocks.
West trailed 23-21 in the first set, but the Wolverines ripped off a four-point run behind Lymaris Vasquez's serving and strong hitting from right-side hitter Cayla Cowart.
But West uncharacteristically committed 21 hitting errors across the four-set match and struggled to extinguish Denmark's momentum at times.
"I take full responsibility. I gave them off all fall break," West head coach Jake Dickey said. "I know (Denmark) played over the break, and several teams did. That was my fault. We did not shake it off. We played South to five — 15-13. Hats off to Denmark, though. You could tell they wanted it. We just apparently were not back from fall break yet."
Outside hitter Reece Rhoads led the Wolverines with 11 kills, while Vasquez chipped in eight kills. Cowart and Natalie Morris each finished with four kills.
Denmark won 12 of the final 15 points in the second set, punctuated by an ace by Keenan to get the Danes to match point.
"This was a really big game for her," Maxey said of Keenan. "She's friends with all the players on that team also. You know, she just really wanted to win tonight. Also, she's just so nice and — look at her right now, she has a smile on her face. Anytime she does something good, everybody's really happy for her."
Maxey also received a strong effort in the middle from freshman Courtney Graham, who piled up five kills and a pair of blocks.
Graham had a career-high 14 kills two weeks ago during a win against Cambridge, which is around the same time Maxey noticed a change in her confidence.
"Courtney has really stepped up for us. She's worked hard," Maxey said. "The beginning of the season was a learning curve for her, but I would say about two tournaments ago is when she really started to gain that confidence and got in our hitting rotation. She did a great job blocking for us. I think we played North Cobb and she just went off that game. Ever since then, her confidence has been up and she understands her role a little bit more. She's done a really good job for us."
Jordan had five kills for Denmark during a fourth set that went back and forth, helping the Danes close out the match.
"We played last night, actually, on a Monday, and she struggled," Maxey said. "We talked a lot about what she can do to improve. With her hitting, she was stopping a lot underneath the ball. She kind of got off to a rough start again tonight. She took a step back, we talked about what she was doing wrong, and she stepped up. It's huge for us to have a sophomore on the court that can just say, 'I'm done. We're winning. Let's go.' She played awesome. Especially, she stepped up passing for us tonight. Normally people see her putting the ball down, and she really did a good job defensively for us."
West (17-15, 1-2 Area 6-7A) will trey to regroup before hosting Lambert on Thursday. The Wolverines picked up their first area win before fall break with a 3-1 victory against Forsyth Central, which came two days after pushing South Forsyth to five sets.
"We just weren't on it. We missed six serves the first set and we serve 91 percent on the season," Dickey said. "We usually don't miss six in two matches."
Denmark (19-17, 1-2 Area 6-7A) will host Gainesville on Thursday for their senior night.
Keenan, one of five seniors for Denmark, marvels at how far the Danes have come since their inaugural season, when they won only three matches.
"We were such a young team. I mean, we didn't even have a senior class," Keenan said. "I know me and the other seniors who were sophomores at the time, we came from playing on a freshman-level team to being thrown into this varsity region. So, we were whipped into shape real fast and we got our reality check. But I'm real proud of everything we've endured over the past couple years and how we've grown together in our program."