Fri Nov 17th, 2023
Special to the Drum
Tags: Anahera Friedrich, Darlyn Mendoza-Lechuga, Emma Middlemist, Hannah Damron, Hannah Nuttall, Jenna Echer, Jennifer Seibel, Kacey Brown, Kelly Sirios, Kenade Hickson, Larry Deffenbaugh, Lily Quintana, Natalie Damron, Ollyvia Howe, Peighton Marrero, Solymar Cosio
Afforded head coach Larry Deffenbaugh’s confidence to briefly spell struggling senior Hannah Nuttall, Strasburg junior Anahera Friedrich, relatively ice-cold and seeing just her third point’s worth of action after unexpectedly entering the fray Friday evening, Nov. 10, mashed a kill down between two Ignacio players to lock up a 25-19 win.
Again bench-bound when Game 3 commenced, Friedrich’s sudden swing had most importantly given the 2023 CHSAA Class 2A State Volleyball Championships’ No. 6 seed a 2-0 lead in the teams’ best-of-five battle for survival. It was the sort of play which, really, could have done an opponent in.
“I was really happy for her; she’s another of our good players but doesn’t get a lot of playing time,” said senior Emma Middlemist. “So I think it was good that he put her in and she got that point, you know, and end the set for us.”
“By the third,” she continued, “we had so much fire under our butts, honestly. We just wanted to win and … win State.”
And with his squad having already ousted 4-seed Mancos – IHS’ San Juan Basin League rival – 25-20, 25-16, 25-17 that morning (with Ignacio observing), Deffenbaugh hoped it would prevent the ’Cats from clawing out a Denver Coliseum comeback.
“You know, we came here last year – we were the five-seed – and we lost; sometimes I think we just like it better when our back’s against the wall,” said the well-traveled boss, more than 40 years’ experience to his name. “But the main thing was we just told them to have fun. We didn’t talk about the other team and what they did; we said ‘Go and have fun!’ and ‘Swing away!’”
First-year IHS skipper Jennifer Seibel told her players something similar, however.
“Just go all-out, play every single point like it’s our last, and just stay in the moment,” she recalled. “Stay focused and disciplined in your positions; you are going to step up because we believe in each other, we love each other.”
“Our whole mindset was ‘Smarter, not harder,’” senior Solymar Cosio said. “We saw the holes and … had to let go of smoking the ball every time – placing it so we could get it done. It was definitely nerve-wracking, but I felt we had a lot of support from our fans and from our bench and everyone on the court.”
And with senior Kacey Brown beginning on serve, the eighth-seeded ’Cats – who’d waited more than six hours to play (the clash with Strasburg, targeted for 5 p.m., started 82 minutes late) after eliminating 7-seed Swink 19-25, 27-25, 25-19, 25-12 – came alive, looking little like the side which initially couldn’t get up to match speed in Game 1.
Trying to shake off the downtime, but ably swapping points evenly through the opening dozen exchanges, Ignacio suddenly lost a gear as Strasburg went on an 8-0 run – highlighted by back-to-back service aces by junior Peighton Marrero – from which the ’Cats, trailing 14-6, wouldn’t recover.
Cosio ripped a kill cutting the deficit slightly down to 16-9, but SHS never let the lead shrink to less than five points the rest of the way. Sophomore Hannah Damron stuffed an over-pass down on IHS freshman Kelly Sirios to bring up game point, 24-16, and after senior libero Kenade Hickson then served to counterpart Lily Quintana, Natalie Damron quickly followed up with a fierce kill putting SHS up 1-0 in the test.
Game 2 had also been an uphill grind, with SHS able to build up a 10-7 lead. The ’Cats rallied to tie at 11-, 12-, and 13-all before the ’Burg-ers then went up 16-13 and more or less maintained that margin until a late 4-0 burst put them at game point, 24-18, after Cosio hit a shot long and junior teammate Ollyvia Howe then netted an attack with Friedrich having just entered.
But Game 3 began with Nuttall clipping the antenna with an attack, Middlemist netting one, and Cosio cracking a kill off SHS senior Katherine Seligmann’s block for a 3-0 Volleycat lead. Natalie Damron managed to place a push shot into open space, bringing Strasburg back to 5-3, but IHS would increase the advantage to 9-4 – pressing Deffenbaugh into using a timeout after Damron netted an attack and Howe tooled a kill off SHS’ blocking.
And Ignacio wouldn’t relent; after SHS closed to 11-10, three straight errors shipped as many points back to the ’Cats, rebuilding IHS’ lead to 14-10. Not wanting to see the match prolonged into a fourth game and much less a tiebreaking fifth, Strasburg used a 5-0 run to snatch a 19-16 lead – forcing Seibel to burn a timeout after SHS freshman Jenna Echer’s serving resulted in two serve-reception errors, plus a clean ace of Quintana.
Two SHS miscues and an ace by senior Darlyn Mendoza-Lechuga brought Ignacio level at 19, and a Howe kill did likewise at 20 before Strasburg went up 22-20. After Seibel chose to use her last timeout, junior Marissa Olguin responded with a successful roll shot and SHS then gifted away another point via a double-contact infraction.
Middlemist came back with a clutch kill, only to see Cosio answer with a soft roll into space. Remaining the aggressor on the scoreboard, Strasburg reached match point at 24-23, but Cosio let nothing come of Hickson’s serve by piercing SHS’ block with a tying kill. With the contest pushed into extra points, and more fans inside the building beginning to take notice, SHS again went ahead via a Damron kill, but Ignacio again answered via a Cosio spike.
“It was back and forth, back and forth, but … it was great,” Middlemist said. “It was pretty difficult, but all mental. We kind of fell apart … but as it went on, we got the hang of it.”
“You see one point, you’re like ‘Okay, let’s go!’” said Echer, “but then there’d be another (Ignacio) one … and you’re like, ‘We’ve got to turn it on!’ And I think Ignacio’s pretty solid; they could have played us to a fourth, if I’m being honest.”
“They’re all tough; Strasburg had really good energy,” Brown said. “We just wanted to find their holes (offensively), pick up everything (defensively), but they were really scrappy. It was fun playing them.”
Unfortunately, the fun – both of the match and a history-making season – had to end. Damron glanced a kill off Brown’s block for a 26-25 lead, and Echer then clinched a 25-16, 25-19, 27-25 sweep with the serve of the match.
Focusing on a location somewhere between Ignacio’s front- and back-row players, Echer’s offering curved towards the far sideline, drawing senior Maci Barnes’ interest. Once appearing too fast and following too wide an arc to remain in bounds, it suddenly gave in to gravity … as did Barnes’ feet – gluing her helplessly to the court while, in the partially-screened line judge’s eyes, the ball nicked just enough of the line to be ruled an ace.
“My main position is defensive specialist; I’m just all over the floor, picking up anything. But I’d say one of my strong suits is serving; I’ve trusted my training with that a lot,” said Echer. “And obviously there was a lot of pressure on me, but I … just took, like, deep breaths, understood what was going on with the game … and felt like I was in control. I saw the zone and was like, ‘This is the time, this is the place … so put it down!’”
Beginning their Championships run with a 25-23, 25-23, 25-18 sweep of No. 9 Meeker on Thursday, November 9, then dealt a 14-25, 9-25, 17-25 defeat later that day by Wiggins, Ignacio finished 2-2 in the program’s second Championships appearance in three seasons (after more than a three-decade wait), and closed out the 2023 campaign an outstanding 21-8 overall.
“It was amazing; we put it all together,” said Sirios, “put confidence in our minds … but we couldn’t make it happen. But we’re going to keep getting better; we’re having new freshmen (in ’24) coming, and we’ll see what comes out. I’m super excited.”
“I think they were pretty good,” Middlemist said. “Going into the game we didn’t downplay them; we take every competition the same, whether they’re super good or bad.”
“Burlington, our very first game at State, I think we kind of forgot what it was like to really play as a team – play the best we know how to,” she continued, referring to SHS’ 11-25, 27-25, 25-23, 24-26, 13-15 loss on Day 1. “We reflected on it and decided ‘Let’s play together!’ And also, made God the center of … why we play; we went out like that the rest of the (tournament).”
“I feel like nobody thought we were going to do this, or that we weren’t supposed to do this, and we did. So I’m really proud of everyone,” declared Brown. “Obviously it’s a loss and not everyone’s going to be happy, but we’ve got to be proud of our school and show how proud we are … with a win or a loss.”
“Strasburg, we’ve seen them play several times,” Seibel said, alluding to the teams’ participation in the early-September Denver Christian Invitational, as well as at the State Championships, “and they’re a great team. But I still tell my girls that if you have fun, work your butt off, and just truly see each other in the highest light, no one can stop you.”
“I’m just so very humbled and grateful. For our coaches, and for the position that I’ve been put in to help lead this team to where we’ve gotten. And I couldn’t have gotten anywhere without my team, period,” said Cosio. “Ignacio Volleyball has such a bright future. We have amazing freshmen now and will-be seniors that are ready; they’ve stepped up in crucial moments, and I think they’ll be ready to take on bigger roles next year.”
Seeded No. 1 in the supreme 12-team bracket, WHS went on to defeat 3-seed Sedgwick County – the two-time defending State Champion – in the grand finale on Day 3, pulling out a 25-22, 25-10, 20-25, 25-27, 15-9 victory and improving to 25-4 overall while dropping the Lady Cougars to 22-8.
Also reaching the Final Four were 10-seed Limon (15-14), defeated by SC, and No. 11 Burlington (15-15) – giving the Union Pacific (like the SJBL, a 2A/1A league) three teams, Strasburg included, in the Championships’ top eight.