Kate Launey, Country Day teammates roll to fourth straight Division V state volleyball championship

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Kate Launey
(Photo: Gregory Juan)

KENNER – The Country Day volleyball season ended the way it always figured to end – with the No. 1 seed winning the Division V state championship.

The careers of seven Cajuns seniors ended the way they figured to end – with a fourth consecutive state championship.

And for the 10th time in 11 years the season ended with Country Day hoisting the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA State Championship trophy inside the Pontchartrain Center, this time after a 3-0 victory over second-seeded Central Catholic on Saturday morning.

But this team was special. Julie Ibieta, the coach of all those champions, said so afterward.

This team won more matches than any other Cajuns team, finishing 47-2. It won more tournaments than any other Cajuns team.

It didn’t lose a game in five post-season matches, the closest call being a 25-21 win in the first game Saturday.

Sure, this championship always seemed pretty much inevitable, but Country Day never took anything for granted.

Certainly the coaching staff didn’t.

The seniors didn’t – not after their careers began by watching the Cajuns’ stretch of six straight titles end for the Class of 2015.

“It was so heartbreaking to know that those seniors didn’t get the win that we had gotten for six years,” said libero Kate Launey, who was an 8th grader on that team.

And certainly Launey didn’t take anything for granted – not after seeing her volleyball career and life turned upside down after being diagnosed with lymphoma in 2017.

She endured chemotherapy. She faced the fear of having to give up volleyball. She beat cancer. She returned to volleyball. And on Saturday morning she was named the Most Outstanding Player in her final match, the final one played by arguably the most outstanding team from the most outstanding volleyball program in Louisiana.

Launey, one of two team captains along with fellow senior Kelsey Dinvaut, often seemed as active between points as she was when the ball was in play, slapping hands with each teammate after virtually every point, congratulating after the good ones, encouraging after the not-so-good ones.

That’s a big part of the libero’s job — not just setting the tone defensively, but also managing the team’s psyche.

“It’s important to make sure that we have a good rapport with each other not just in the points but also outside the points because that’s where games are won when we’re together and playing well together,” Launey said. “It’s important every point of a game but I think it’s especially important during those lost points.

“You don’t want anyone thinking that they’re losing a point for us. It’s a team sport so we need to make sure that we’re always picking each other up. I think it’s very important that we’re always hitting hands and encouraging each other all the time.”

Launey has spent her volleyball career uplifting Country Day and when she needed it most, Country Day was there to uplift her.

She’s a Country Day lifer, having been a part of the Old Metairie campus “since she was a baby,” Ibieta said with only slight exaggeration. Launey started at Country Day in kindergarten so she has spent the last 13 of her 18 years at the school.

“Country Day has been my second home and they’ve given me everything I’ve ever wanted,” Launey said. “The atmosphere that they provide and the support system that we have in academics and in athletics have been really exciting to be a part of and I’m so grateful to have been there for 13 years.”

That support helped Launey through her cancer scare.

What doctors initially thought was a bone infection at the start of her freshman year was determined to be Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma in her left knee near the end of that year.

“When we found out it was cancer it totally blew our minds,” said Kate’s mother Dana, one the Cajuns’ assistant volleyball coaches.

“When I found out she had cancer,” teammate Kaci Chairs said, “I broke down. It hit me hard.”

Launey saw “several doctors” to confirm the diagnosis before settling on a form of treatment.

They all kept using the same word to describe the disease – “curable.”

Initially, Launey feared that she would have to give up volleyball, but soon realized her absence would be short term.

Doctors laid out a chemotherapy treatment plan – six treatments over about 4½ months – and it dawned on Launey “You can get through this.”

“She has always had that fighter personality,” Dana said. “And she’s very goal oriented so when the doctors told us that it was six treatments she just had her mind set on that – I’m just going to get through this regardless of how sick I feel or how bad the shots hurt.”

That’s when Launey’s teammates – literally and figuratively – stepped in with a real-life versions of between-point hand-slaps. Family, friends, teammates, former teammates, classmates and friends who were volleyball opponents from other schools visited her in the hospital, brought baked goodies to the house, sent her cards and texts, talked with her over the phone while she was absent from school.

“Everybody played different roles in her recovery,” Dana said.

It was certainly more serious than encouraging a teammate after a lost point, but the message was the same one Launey sent with her constant hand slaps: “we’re going to put this behind us and get to where we want to go. And we’re going to do it together.”

After Kate’s early chemo treatment robber her of her hair she arrived at school in a wheelchair, necessitated by a biopsy done on her knee.

She was greeted in the lobby by the boys in her 9th grade class who had taken it upon themselves to shave their heads to show support for her.

“They were saying, ‘we’re here for you.’” Dana recalled.

“That’s when she realized, ‘I’ve got this. I’m going to do this with everybody rallying behind me. I’m going to make it through.’”

Kate’s success in the classroom made it easier for her to overcome the necessary absence from school while being treated. Some teachers allowed her to finish spring work over the summer and she was able to do some work online as she prepared to return to school in the fall.

“I made sure that I was focused on one thing at a time,” Kate said. “My health was important, but also I didn’t want to get behind in school and also I was working really, really hard to get back to volleyball because it was the one place I felt most at home with.”

Her chemo treatment ended as the fall semester and volleyball practice were getting under way.

“The first treatment burns going in,” Dana said. “She dealt with that physical pain every time going through it. After the treatment there was another shot she’d have to get.

“She’s always been tough. Not one time did she ever complain. Not once did she ask, ‘why me? why am I the one suffering?’”

Dana paused.

“She’s an incredible kid.”

Kate returned to practice on an individual basis, but couldn’t participate in team drills because of the port that had been inserted near her shoulder through which the chemo treatments were administered.

Her last treatment took place in August during the first week of school.

“I wanted to go back to school because that’s where I felt most at home actually,” Kate said. “I thought it was really good to be back there and around everybody that I knew loved me.

“It was really nice to be there and have that support system telling me I was OK and treating me like nothing was different because that’s what I wanted in my life at that point.”

On Sept. 8 she received “the all clear,” Dana said.

Two days after the port was removed Kate played in a home match against Dominican. When she entered the lineup she received a standing ovation.

“It was awesome,” Ibieta said.

Naturally, she wasn’t 100 percent when she first returned.

“I hated that,” Kate said. “It’s no fun not being your best. My teammates and coaches helped me work through it.”

She said she was back to her old self by the state tournament that November. That’s when the Cajuns won the second state title in the streak that reached four on Saturday.

Fellow senior Kamrym Thomas called Kate “a mini coach Dana.”

“She keeps everyone in check on the court and off the court, academically and athletically,” Thomas said.

Dinvaut called playing volleyball with Launey since they were both 13 “an honor.”

“She’s a natural born leader,” Dinvaut said. “Being able to keep everyone in line and also perform at a very high level is a really special quality.”

Senior Ashlyn Berwick said that if she was ever in trouble the first person she would call would be Launey.

“You think of her first,” Berwick said, “because she’s always there for you.”

“When the team is down,” Chairs said, “she’s going to pick us up.”

And vice versa.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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