Fri Nov 19th, 2021
Special to the Drum
Tags: Alexis Pontine, CHSAA State Volleyball Championships, CHSAA State Volleyball Championships’ Class 2A, Elisia Cruz, Grace Gonzales, Harmony Reynolds, Jeannie Jo Logan, Laci Brunson, Lady Tigers, Lexy Young, Melanie Taylor, Michelle Baker, Shasta Pontine, Solymar Cosio, Sophia Benjamin, Soroco, The Broadmoor World Arena, Trinity Strohl, Volleycats
Wiggins, Soroco stop Volleycats at State
If there was one team in the CHSAA State Volleyball Championships’ Class 2A field who could empathize with State tourney rookies Ignacio, it may have actually been defending State Champion Wiggins.
“We lost four of our starters from the State Championship team, so we’ve kind of known that we have a lot of work … and a long ways to go,” said head coach Michelle Baker, following the teams’ Day 1 encounter Thurs., Nov. 11. “And like we’ve told them all year long; this is a completely different team than what it was. We’re doing things a little differently, have people playing different positions – it’s a totally different team and we’ve tried to kind of get their minds wrapped around that, so they didn’t feel the pressure of last season’s success.”
“Getting them comfortable, I think, is the biggest thing,” she continued, speaking of both her underclassman-dominated Lady Tigers as well as the Volleycats – making their program’s return to the final weekend after a 34-year wait – inside The Broadmoor World Arena. “I hope they [IHS] don’t put too much pressure on themselves in this circumstance, you know?”
Welcomed into the Big Dance with a service ace from WHS senior Rachael White, the ’Cats quickly fell behind 8-2 in Game 1 before rallying all the way back to as close as 19-18 via a kill by junior Grace Gonzales. Wiggins sophomore Taelynn Epple answered with a kill and classmate Tyleigh Fehseke – like Epple, one of two Lady Tiger sophs and three overall listed at 5’10” – followed with another, putting WHS on track to a 25-19 win capped by a double-contact violation against Ignacio junior setter Laci Brunson.
Continuing to show the unknown ’Cats the biggest stage’s proverbial ropes, Wiggins rode a Gonzales foot-fault infraction out to a 7-0 lead before IHS senior Alexis Pontine downed a cross-court kill. Undaunted, the Lady Tigers capitalized upon another Brunson double-touch and increased their lead to 12-1 en route to a comprehensive 25-9 win and 2-0 lead in the match pitting 11-seed Ignacio against No. 6 WHS.
But back to Baker’s ‘pressure’ comment for a moment. If the underdog Volleycats were feeling any, it may have been mostly mental due the simple fact that – due to a swift 2A opener with 8-seed Denver Christian sweeping No. 9 Hoehne, plus a slow-played opening match in Class 3A – they found themselves in action at the same time as, and around the corner of the floor’s divisive netting from Bayfield, making for a likely State first between the Pine River Valley schools.
And indeed, Game 2 against Wiggins would be IHS’ low moment in the Championships. Bouncing back well, Ignacio traded evenly with the Lady Tigers all the way out to 8-8, when Baker took a timeout following a Gonzales kill off a Pontine assist. And in being able to outscore the ’Cats 12-5 after the pause, WHS pressed Shasta Pontine into calling a timeout with Ignacio down 20-13. Momentum, unfortunately, would remain with Wiggins – which polished off a 25-14 win and first-round sweep when Gonzales smacked a back-row attempt into the net.
“You know, our record was only 16-9 for the regular season – our losses were against some pretty big teams – so I thought (Ignacio) did great,” said Baker. “They were exciting to watch, had a big block and had some great hits … were able to move the ball around. Strong servers, and I think they were scrappy; you love to see teams like that.”
“Watching them grow is exciting – we have only one senior – so it’s exciting to see those girls’ potential,” she added.
Simultaneously in action with not only BHS (versus Intermountain League rival Alamosa, no less) but also 2A/1A San Juan Basin Leaguers Dove Creek (1A, against Idalia) the morning of Day 2, Ignacio squared off against Oak Creek-based Soroco – an opponent they’d have seen earlier this fall at the Simla Invitational, had COVID-19 worries not canceled the Volleycats’ trip.
“It just shows we’re really high-level volleyball down here in southwest Colorado,” Alexis Pontine said. “It’s really exciting and we’re all really dedicated to the sport.”
“One point at a time … just keep your head in the game,” she continued. “If you mess up, shake it off and focus on the next point; the past is in the past and you’ve got to focus on the future.”
Proud of having earned their own program’s first-ever State berth, senior-blessed SHS, pained by an upset loss to 5-seed Holyoke the previous afternoon, made 8 a.m. amends at the expense of unlucky Ignacio.
“I think they were a little mad at themselves and knew they had missed an opportunity,” said SHS skipper Jeannie Jo Logan, referring to her 4-seed Lady Rams’ 8-25, 16-25, 17-25 second-round setback avenged via a 30-28, 25-16, 25-20 sweep of IHS. “So just wanting to turn things around … the girls did well on it; it was on them.”
Primed to pounce, so were the ’Cats, who pressured Soroco often during each stanza’s earliest movements, and who very nearly pushed the survival showdown beyond the minimum number of them before Brunson was called for a double-contact with SHS on match point, 24-20.
Having rallied out of a 9-6 hole to tie at 11-all, Ignacio relinquished the upper hand – for good, as it turned out – when Gonzales was whistled for a back-row violation on an otherwise-successful roll shot. SHS junior Shelby Geiger followed with a kill and SHS separated out to 16-11, forcing Shasta Pontine to take a timeout – and offer advice to which the ’Cats steadily took heed as they crept back to as close as 19-17 via a service ace by freshman Ollyvia Howe.
But senior Sophia Benjamin, the Lady Rams’ top gun, tooled a kill (one of her match-high 14) off a Gonzales block to spark a crippling 4-1 run – including a Benjamin serve unable to be fielded – putting Soroco up 23-18. Gonzales managed to place a cross-court kill and IHS also scored on the next exchange, but Alexis Pontine’s subsequent attempted push to the deep corner floated just long – giving SHS first crack at claiming the contest.
“We went out there … the highest we’ve ever been in a long time,” Gonzales said. “We’ve been practicing really hard all year, and … I’m really proud of our team. I think we’re going to do well in future games.”
Against Wiggins, Gonzales downed seven kills and Pontine six with Brunson distributing nine assists but five teammates also logging one each. Junior libero Trinity Strohl came up with a team-high ten digs, while Pontine booked nine and Gonzales eight. Pontine also zipped five aces over the strings.
In the Soroco match, Pontine paced Ignacio with nine kills and Gonzales was credited with five. Senior Lexy Young downed an improved seven and junior Harmony Reynolds four as Brunson logged 16 assists. Defensively, however, was where the ’Cats shone; Young came up with a team-high 20 digs – trailing only Lady Ram senior Emi Ramirez’s 23 – while Pontine and Gonzales each tallied 16, while sophomore Solymar Cosio was in on three solo and two assisted blocks.
“When you just want that ball so bad, you’re reaching for it all the time,” she said.
Reynolds was credited with two solo and two assisted stuffs, and Strohl again reached double-digit digs with ten.
Senior Irene Hoff booked 35 assists for SHS, as senior Eden Mayer slammed ten kills and senior Peyton Parker eight. Hoff also racked up 15 digs for a key statistical double-double in the victory – pushing Soroco (19-4) into a test against Limon (16-11), which eliminated – by 26-24, 16-25, 25-17, 25-21 scores – Denver Christian (20-8) immediately following SHS-IHS.
“I’m proud of all of us for sticking together,” said Brunson.
“I’m just sad this is our last year playing together,” senior reserve Elisia Cruz said. “We’ve grown up together and I’m just so proud of everyone.”
“Focusing on having fun and playing well together,” said Shasta Pontine, “they really came together as a team.”
All told, Ignacio finished Fall 2021 standing 19-8 overall, their win count believed to be a single-season most since Melanie Taylor’s 1992 crew tallied 19 – according to IHS’ 1993 yearbook – before losing a postseason regional-pigtail in Delta to Walsenburg John Mall.
Soroco’s State dreams were dashed by Limon in a competitive 21-25, 23-25, 19-25 loss, leaving the Lady Rams 19-5 overall. The Lady Badgers, however, then fell 16-25, 18-25, 17-25 to SHS rival Meeker and ended up 17-12.
Having survived into the single-elimination Final Four, MHS then fell 20-25, 9-25, 22-25 to Julesburg-based Sedgwick County – which then stopped Lower Platte Activities Association rival Holyoke 25-10, 23-25, 25-23, 25-20 in the grand finale.
SC finished 25-3 overall, while the Lady Dragons – after previously sweeping Wiggins 25-19, 25-12, 25-21 – dipped to 23-8 after their third loss this season to the Lady Cougars. Having defeated MHS (26-3 overall) 25-17, 24-26, 25-19, 22-25, 15-12 during double-elimination play (Meeker would then sweep Limon) to initially sustain hopes of earning a repeat State crown, WHS – another LPAA member – ended up a solid 19-10.