A boisterous crowd packed inside the freshly renovated gymnasium at Marana High School to see a top-10 match between the Tigers and Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks on Tuesday night.
The attendees witnessed a back-and-forth affair, with the hometown Tigers and visiting Nighthawks trading points through the match, before IRHS pulled away to win in four sets.
A quick glance at the box score will show that Ironwood Ridge won the match, 25-23, 15-25, 25-17, 25-20.
That simplistic sheet fails to tell the tale of the match, however, as each set featured playoff-level drama, with each side having its share of chances in each stanza.
Longtime IRHS coach Bill Lang summed up the evening in his post-match comments, calling his team’s effort substandard, while praising his players for gutting out the win on the road.
“I just thought that we underplayed tonight. I'm happy that we are kind of gritty. I felt like 20 missed serves in a four-set match, was a little too much,” Lang said. “So, I don't think we were ready to play from the service line … Obviously, I think for a big match, we need to do better.”
A glance at the match stats illustrates Lang’s point, as the Nighthawks committed 21 service errors, 15 attacking errors and four blocking errors.
The point of Lang’s critical comments is to reinforce the focus that the Nighthawks, who are ranked seventh in 5A, need to have entering the state playoffs.
He’s proud of the way the team fought through adversity, which is something that will benefit the team heading into the 16-team tournament and hopes the team will respond well in the team’s final four regular season matches.
“Part of being at Ironwood Ridge and playing at Ironwood Ridge, is you've got to take everybody's best shot every night,” Lang said. “You play in a circled match every single night. And that's something that's really hard for our players to understand sometimes, that you've got to be ready for everybody's response.
“And so, the fact that we kind of took the last time we played Marana, we took their best shot, we were able to win in five. Tonight, we're able to win in four on the road. Shows how gritty and how hard we work.”
IRHS senior Kianna Swingle, who finished the match with four kills, four aces and a block, praised her teammates for their composure in a tough road setting.
“I just felt like we did really well just coming in and knowing what we wanted to get done and keeping our eyes on the prize and staying focused,” Swingle said. “I think [tonight’s win] just shows us that no matter where we are, we just have to stay calm and stay confident.”
Conversely, Marana coach Jenifer Ball described her team’s effort on Tuesday as proving how far the Tigers have come as a program.
“I feel like we did some good things. I thought we blocked really well this match. I thought our effort was great,” Ball said. “We played some great defense. Yeah, I mean, I think there was some really good things.
Obviously, we missed some key serves in key moments that really can change that momentum, and that was frustrating, but I'm proud of the girls. They learn from their mistakes, and that's all I can ask of them.”
Marana senior Ella Dotson said the budding rivalry between the Nighthawks and Tigers in the 5A Southern region speaks to the quality of girls volleyball in the area.
“It just shows the competition in our region and how both teams have so much fire in them and just come out and battle point for point and just give it all they got every single point and play like every single point is the match point,” Dotson said.
The theme of the night for Lang is for improvement, with his team gaining confidence and momentum heading into the closing stretch of the regular season.
The longtime IRHS coach knows that his team will likely have to conquer one of the Phoenix-area powers to make a deep playoff run.
He also knows that his team’s ability to put forth gutsy efforts on the road is a key step towards playoff success, with Tuesday’s win serving as a stepping-stone in the right direction.
“So, there's a lot of positives in [tonight’s win]. And the emotional value of that I think will pay off in the playoffs. But, at the same time, we also have a lot of film that we need to start working on peaking,” Lang said. “And we need to realize that we need to play a lot better, especially come November.”
Around the Region
The Nighthawks’ winning ways continued last week. They swept Nogales and Sunnyside last Wednesday and Thursday and Buena 25-16, 25-11, 25-15 to move their record to 25-12. Ironwood Ridge returned to play Tuesday, Oct. 29 to close out the regular season.
As for the Tigers, they moved to 20-5 for the year after sweeping Buena last Thursday night. Marana finished out the regular season against Cienega and Nogales after deadline on Monday and Tuesday evening, respectively.
The Catalina Foothills Falcons improved to 20-11 after sweeping Vista Grande and Sahuaro last Tuesday and Thursday before finishing out their regular season on the road against Salpointe after deadline Tuesday night.
Canyon del Oro swept Sahuaro and Casa Grande last Tuesday and Thursday to move to 13-11. The Dorados finished the regular season on the road against Vista Grande to finish the year Tuesday night.
Pusch Ridge Christian Academy moved to 15-12 this season after falling to Sabino in four sets last Tuesday, though they swept Sahuarita on Thursday. The Lions played Tanque Verde Tuesday night, and close the regular season at home against Safford on Halloween night.