A small but passionate crowd echoed through the volleyball gym at Ironwood Ridge High School Thursday night.
The impassioned masse turned out to see two of the region’s hottest boy’s volleyball teams, in third-ranked Mountain View and 16th ranked Ironwood Ridge, take the court.
Those that made their way to the Oro Valley school didn’t leave disappointed, as both sides engaged in a nightlong battle, which Mountain View won, three sets to one.
The visiting Lions (26-6, 7-1) breezed through the first two sets, 25-16 and 25-19, before the Nighthawks (14-13, 4-3) stormed back to take set three, 25-21.
For Mountain View coach Lindsey Spivey, Thursday’s contest gave her team a chance to fight through adversity, beating a longtime rival on their home court.
“I think in the first couple games they played with a lot of heart,” she said. “We had a very different line up today than we have been playing with, so they did a nice job in their new jobs,” she said. “Set three just got away from us. We definitely beat ourselves. I wasn't thrilled with that, but then fourth set they came back, and they did their jobs. They worked really hard for that win.”
For Ironwood Ridge coach Ashleigh Houlton, Thursday’s match represented a chance for her youthful team to show what they’re made of.
Houlton said she was proud of the way the Nighthawks fought their way back in the fourth set, saying that win provided a blueprint for next month’s state playoffs.
“I think they played really well, actually,” Houlton said. “I think we were pretty consistent for three sets, and then just kind of lost steam. We've got four of our starters who are sophomores, so just some growing up to do, but they're doing a good job of elongating their focus and really good at doing exactly what we ask them to do and just finding what they're capable of doing.”
Mountain View seniors Caleb Crook and Elijah Elmer, who had a game-high 14 kills apiece in the team’s four-set victory, believe Thursday’s win can give the team a head of momentum entering the final two weeks of the regular season.
“I think that we struggled at times, but we were able to pull through and get the plays we needed so we could pull off the win,” Crook said.
Elmer added that this year’s team has bonded over the way their season ended a year ago, when the Lions were upset in the 5A first round by Kellis High School.
That team, which was the first in school history to be ranked No. 1 overall in 5A, couldn’t finish the job, according to Elmer.
The 6 foot 5 inch senior believes this year’s squad is built to do just that, with a potent mixture of size, athleticism and back-breaking power at every position.
For Elmer, making a deep playoff run during his senior season would mean a lot, giving this year’s senior class a chance to rectify last year’s early exit.
“That game hurt so bad, and I know everyone still feels it,” he said of the team’s loss to Kellis. “We think about that all the time. And that's what's really improved us this season. In our head, we know what we want to go. We want to make it to state and we want to go far. That's always been our goal and it's like a dream to get to the state and I just know everyone shares that common goal.”
That level of dedication to victory is what stands out for Spivey, who said she loves the way her team fights through adversity.
Spivey said Thursday’s fourth set loss, and the way her team rallied to win the fourth and final set speaks to the fighting spirit that’s gripped her team this season.
“I love their passion. I love that they can be silly when they want to be, and silly when they're allowed to be and then serious when they need to be,” Spivey said. “I love how they work together, and I love how they are accountable for their actions and they bring each other up when they need to.”
The key to avoiding another playoff lapse, according to Crook, is the team’s ability to stay mentally focused during matches.
Crook said he’s confident the team will do just that in next month’s postseason, putting last year’s acrimony to rest.
“We’ve got to make sure we're there mentally. A lot of times, it happens to slip. But we somehow get back in the groove,” Crook said. “But we need to get in that groove right from the beginning of every single game, every set, every match. Just be ready to play from the beginning. If we do that, then we’re going to have a lot of success.”
Around the Region
The five boys volleyball programs that dot northwest Tucson had varying levels of success last week, with several teams going unbeaten.
The Catalina Foothills Falcons (15-12) beat Amphitheater in straight sets in their lone match of the week. They played Marana after deadline Tuesday, and next face Cienega Wednesday and Buena on the road in their regular season finale next Monday, April 29.
The Canyon del Oro Dorados (16-10) beat Desert View, 3-1, Amphitheater, 3-0, and Saint Augustine, 3-0, last week. They played Flowing Wells after deadline Tuesday, and next face Marana Wednesday, April 24.
The Nighthawks played Sahuaro after deadline Tuesday, and next face Rincon/University on Thursday, April 25, followed by Higley on Friday, April 26 to close their season.
Marana (7-13-1) beat Sabino, 3-1, in their lone match last week. The Tigers close their season with games against CDO, Buena and Pueblo this Wednesday, Thursday and next Tuesday, April 30, respectively.
The Mountain View Lions played top-ranked Rincon/University High School after deadline Tuesday and close their season with matches at Palo Verde on Thursday, April 25 and Catalina Magnet next Monday, April 29.
The 5A state tournament play-in rounds start Thursday, May 2 at 6:30 p.m. with matches taking place at the higher seeded team’s court.