Almost twenty full years after her Lady Cubs hoisted high the program’s second Class 2A State Championship Gold Ball in a three-year stretch, iconic Simla head coach Sue Snyder proudly presided over the Sept. 24, 2016, SHS Invitational, praising the quality of participating teams far more than quantity.
“This was one tough tournament,” she declared, having seen her squad emerge victorious at day’s end … though not in the match they’d hoped to reach. But with three of the meet’s six competing crews coming in ranked in the CHSAANow.com 2A poll’s top-ten, and two on the cusp as ‘Others Receiving Votes,’ Snyder knew first place for any squad would be a hard-earned, postseason-like achievement.
And therein was the appeal to teams driven to drive from distant towns; Weld, Las Animas, Routt, Yuma and La Plata Counties were all represented, and their respective sides eagerly sought to show some early-season State worthiness and get a glimpse of the sort of play demanded inside the Denver Coliseum.
“I honestly think we got into our own heads, because we were slow at first. But it was really exciting to go out there and play a hard team,” said Ignacio freshman Makayla Howell, assessing the Volleycats’ opposition. “I think we needed the competition right away because that way we knew what the tournament’s going to be about.”
“We have a lot of new players on the team, freshmen. Last year we had a lot of seniors,” junior Avionne Gomez said, “so it’s … not ‘challenging,’ but we’re learning more things playing these higher 2A … places far away.”
“A lot, honestly,” stated freshman Morgan Herrera. “It was rough.”
“Our team’s still trying to get that ‘bond’ together for playing volleyball…trying to build our ‘team’ up.”
Included in Pool 2 with No. 2-ranked Greeley Dayspring Christian Academy and SHS, the Cats – still fueled by an expected, yet still impressive [25-16, 25-21, 25-10] 2A/1A San Juan Basin League sweep of Mancos back home barely 36 hours earlier – managed to take one game and almost a second from Simla and destructive junior Jerraldawn Rector before losing the 9a.m. clash 16-25, 25-23, 29-31, 12-25.
“After we shut her down it was a lot easier to get her,” said Herrera, who paired with Howell for a Rector-rejecting block which echoed louder than most and had heads turning viciously to see who’d survived the attempted slam. “Me and (Howell) are really good at communicating with each other.”
“We got a lot of confidence,” Gomez added of IHS’ Game 2 win and Game 3 near-miss in the two ‘RV’ teams’ rumble. “One of their players hit really good, we blocked her, and it was … kind of fun!”
There was noticeably less of that in the contest against DCA immediately following the loss to SHS, but Ignacio still managed to please head coach Thad Cano by pressuring the height-blessed Lady Eagles often in a 15-25, 15-25, 20-25 loss.
In Game 1 the ’Cats had actually led 3-0 and rallied to tie at 6-6, in Game 2 IHS led at 2-0 and 4-2 and also came as close as 16-14 on senior Kelly Campbell’s piercing spike through Dayspring’s vaunted front of juniors Katie Kurz and Megan Roberts, and senior Makayla Bell.
“They were definitely a similar team, just a little bit bigger than Simla was,” said Howell. “They had a lot of good hitters, they were big, but we kept up with them. We did what we do best – we played our own game – and we can beat them, I think, if we really wanted to.”
“We got intimidated and I think we just stuck with that for a long time,” Herrera concurred.
Finally granted a break to properly refuel and rehydrate while DCA swept SHS in another relatively close match, Ignacio took full advantage to rest up before facing Oak Creek Soroco – which had appeared upset-capable in a three-game loss to #5-ranked Hoehne, but less so in a three-gamer against No. 9 Wray – for fifth place.
Both teams looked to relish playing against less ‘vertical’ resistance, but with Campbell benched after taking a clonk to the head in the Dayspring match, the Lady Rams were quick to capitalize. Racing out to an 8-1 lead, Soroco led almost wire-to-wire and took Game 1 25-14 with a Charlee Veilleux ace.
Game 2 saw the teams trade almost evenly before IHS went up 13-12 and led by as many as seven points, 21-14, before SHS pulled even at 24 on an ace by libero Cassie Constine and then stole the game when Ignacio’s Shoshone Thompson hit long and Constine then placed a perfect free ball onto vacant flooring.
“I think the break killed us. We just got tired and lazy, and we came in playing lazy and tired,” lamented Howell. “And then we started playing our game; we started doing what we do best and picked it up. We started killing the ball…one pass at a time to one set at a time to one kill at a time.”
“Dayspring Christian and Simla…we just wanted to finish and go home with a win,” Gomez said. “We just focused on going home…because we were all really tired.”
Two Gomez aces gave the ’Cats a 10-7 upper hand in Game 3, and SHS skipper Jeannie Jo Logan was fairly irate in the huddle after calling timeout following an Ignacio kill by senior Alex Forsythe and a trademark Thompson ace – putting IHS up 15-10.
“Don’t give ’em this game!” she shouted, loud enough for all to hear even while the third-place test between Simla and Wray was getting underway on the adjacent court. But the Lady Rams couldn’t respond; Thompson notched another ace, Herrera backed it up with a kill, and the Volleycats would win 25-18 via consecutive aces from specialist Ryley Webb.
Soroco did manage a 4-1 lead in Game 4, but Ignacio countered and after moving ahead at 6-5, built up a three-point lead five times before SHS tied at 13-13. But Forsythe downed a kill and then fired an ace, sparking a crippling 9-0 burst from which their tiring enemy couldn’t recover, and IHS would win 25-21 – forcing a Game 5 – when Lady Ram Danielle Villa netted an attack.
Incredibly, just when it seemed SHS had little left, Soroco worked for a 6-3 advantage in the tiebreaker, and led 7-4 before committing a double-contact violation which would trigger a devastating 10-0 Ignacio run with Gomez holding serve. Logan burned both her allotted timeouts trying to slow the roll, but to no avail; Forsythe soon put down a tip shot for a 15-8 win and 3-2 triumph.
“In the fifth … well, we wanted to go home,” admitted Howell. “But we didn’t want to go home losing to a team we know we could beat.”
Preparing for an Oct. 1 visit from Norwood (5-6, 4-2 SJBL as of 9/27), the ’Cats improved to 5-6 overall (still 4-3 SJBL) while the Lady Rams dipped to 6-6. Simla would defeat WHS 22-25, 25-19, 26-24, 25-21 to save third and improve to 8-3 while dropping Wray to 5-3. And in the championship, DCA (11-0) mowed HHS (10-2) down in three – 25-19, 25-12 and a resounding 25-9.