Two of the northwest’s hottest girls volleyball teams engaged in a five-set instant classic on Tuesday night in Oro Valley.
Both Ironwood Ridge (10-5) and Marana (7-2) entered the night’s action ranked in the top-15 of the AIA’s initial rankings for 5A, with the former ranked seventh and the latter 12th in the division.
They left it all on the line on Tuesday, with Ironwood Ridge hanging on for a five-set win, 25-16, 23-25, 24-26, 25-12 and 15-12.
IRHS coach Bill Lang, who’s in his 18th season leading the Nighthawks, called Tuesday’s match one of the best he’s been involved in during his tenure at the school.
Lang praised his team for its ability to overcome losing two-straight sets and rallying by winning the final two to clinch the victory.
“I thought they got tough when we needed to be tough,” Lang said. “I thought we definitely had trouble tonight playing with the lead. So, we held the lead in all three sets or all five sets. We had the lead and we just had trouble trying to maintain that, kind of lose our focus and a lot of it had to do with Marana.”
For Marana coach Jenifer Ball, Tuesday’s hard-fought loss was another measuring stick for a program that’s on the upswing as a whole.
Ball cited the match’s final point, which saw a crazy Ironwood Ridge dig that seemed to touch the floor, leading the Tigers to prematurely celebrate.
That celebration allowed Ironwood Ridge to pounce, taking advantage of an out of position player to slam home the match-winner.
“I'm so proud of them,” Ball said. “We'll never, ever make that same mistake of celebrating before the whistle, but I couldn't be happier with the way they responded to a top 10 team. I mean, we knew it was going to be a point-for-point battle and I am thrilled with the way they responded to such an excellent team.”
Ball’s point was echoed by veteran players, like senior outside hitter Grace Ehler, who spoke highly of the Tigers’ ability to take the Nighthawks to the break on Tuesday night.
“As a team I thought it was a great match. That was the first time we've taken Ironwood to five, I think, ever in the history of Marana volleyball,” Ehler said. “It would have been really nice to pull out the win, but we played them again on our home court. We're ready to come out strong.”
For Lang, watching his team thrive in front of a raucous, packed crowd tells the tale of where the squad is overall.
“We knew it was going to be a tough one because the emotional side, we haven't played an emotional match in a while,” Lang said. “And it's hard when you play a good team and it's an emotional match because we know each other so well but we are just having trouble just maintaining and doing little things offsetting just when we needed to kind of take something off the ball because that wasn't there.”
Lang cited the match’s final point as proof of his team’s steely resolve, as their ability to stay focused allowed them to finish off a grueling match.
“I'm impressed with the last play; we've been working all year about second effort on the ball,” he said. “We do drills in the beginning of every practice that emphasize pursuit and we put them through that a lot, and they were able to over pursue that ball and it got us the win. That was, they just didn't give up even on the last point.”
For Lang’s players, like senior outside hitter Andrea Vigil, Tuesday’s match showed how tough of a foe Marana was and how far the Nighthawks have come since the season’s starting point a month or so ago.
“I thought we played really well. We just really stayed focused the whole time,” Vigil said. “We knew we wanted to come out with a win, so that really motivated us the whole time.”
Perhaps the greatest theme of the night came after the final whistle, as players from both sides milled about, sparking conversation with their friendly foes.
Ehler believes the Tigers can learn from their mistakes against the Nighthawks, gaining valuable insights that will pay off as the postseason comes into focus.
The two teams will meet again on Tuesday, Oct. 22 on Marana’s court. Ehler believes the Tigers will be ready for that match, with an eye on knocking off the Nighthawks for the first time in the program’s history.
“We're all so close and we have a lot of fun together. We know how to lift each other up if the team is going on a run or something,” Ehler said. “We know how to dig ourselves out of holes and have each other's back. There's a lot of really good chemistry on the team so that's nice.