It took more than four hours, nine sets, and an upset of the No. 1 seed, to create an all-Gilbert final in the boys volleyball state tournament.
The fourth-seeded Tigers did pull it off, beating Desert Vista, three games to one, including the deciding game score of 30-28. Gilbert will defend its state title on its home floor against city-rival Highland at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
The second-seeded Hawks needed five games (19-25, 26-24, 25-21, 18-25, 15-10) to eliminate No. 3 Mesa earlier Thursday and return to the championship match for the first time since 2010. The perennial powerhouse hasn’t won a state title since winning back-to-back championships in 2004 and 2005.
Thursday’s semifinals were just what you would expect from the top four teams in Arizona: momentum switches, long rallies and plenty of emotion.
Mesa had swept Highland in two regular season matches. Desert Vista beat Gilbert twice in tournament meetings
“It was real stressful, I wasn’t sure we were going to pull it off because we haven’t beaten (Desert Vista) before,” Gilbert hitter/blocker Nic Gibson said. “But I had confidence in my team and I knew we were going to pull it out.”
The only real surprise were the unforced errors that nearly cost Highland early in the evening, and were the downfall of the top-ranked Thunder in the nightcap.
The Tigers caught Desert Vista off-guard, rallying from a 12-6 deficit to catch Desert Vista at 16-16. Gilbert had momentum after that, winning the first two games 25-22, 25-20. Left-handed outside hitter McKay Taylor made his mark and service errors took a toll.
The teams seemed to trade points in the third set, with neither team getting more than a three-point lead until Brock Wilson’s kill gave Desert Vista a 23-22 lead. Gilbert made two unforced errors to end the game and give back the momentum to the Thunder.
“For the fourth game, I really didn’t want to go to the fifth, because I didn’t know if we could pull it off or not,” Gibson said.
In game four, Desert Vista – with several weapons – fell behind early 5-1 and until it ran off four straight points, looked to be in trouble. But, again, the teams began to trade possession. Neither squad got much of a run.
Thunder coach Ryan Tolman said the hostile crowd played a big factor.
“Worked hard all year long to get the No. 1 seed, (I) wished we could have played on a neutral site,” Tolman said, referring to the semifinal and championship matches being held at Gilbert HS, though sites were determined before the tournament began.
The Thunder kept trying to feed go-to hitter Ryan Adams while Gilbert scrambled a bit to set up Taylor and big middle Cameron Olsen.
“That’s a stressful day at the office,” Gilbert coach Jeff Grover said.
Gilbert has been in the postseason eight years in a row but had only one state title match appearance before last year. Now they have been in the final four three straight years.
“It was hard match for us to actually focus on,” Grover said. “They’ve had our number for a couple of matches this year. We made a few changes, I thought they worked early. They made some great changes later and it became tough for us.”
Gibson’s cut-across swing attack found some success late for the Tigers and when setter Nick Rockwell found Jarrett Neal and Taylor on back-to-back plays, Gilbert was even at 20.
A couple Thunder mistakes gave Gilbert a 22-20 lead but the night wasn’t over. Adams earned a pair of kills for Desert Vista and the Thunder ended up with three set points.
But Gilbert stayed alive. When Wilson’s kill gave Desert Vista a 28-27 lead, a fifth set seemed imminent. But Cameron Dudley put the ball away for Gilbert. Then, Neal got a block at the net and when Gibson (15 kills) tried the end the game, a Desert Vista player was called for being in the net. Game, set, match.
“I thought our group was really composed, really tough calls tonight,” Grover said. “I thought they played through all those pretty well.”
In the first semifinal of the night, Mesa grabbed the early momentum, winning the first game, but Highland bounced back from service errors to win the next two before Mesa pulled away for the fourth set win.
Highland had its offense rolling with Collin Ward (46 assists) finding his hitters consistently throughout the match. Jared Greene put one away and Wendel Wells blocked Mesa opposite Jacob Komenda to help the Hawks get a 6-3 lead. Highland took advantage of Jackrabbit errors to extend the lead to 13-7.
Highland made three straight unforced errors before calling time out and resetting its offense. Greene’s kill gave Highland a 14-10 lead and a Mesa error ended the match.
“The ability to come back, especially playing at Gilbert - this is a tough school to play at - so I was proud of the boys of just coming back after that seven serving errors in the first set,” Highland coach Vee Hiapo said.
A year ago, Highland lost to Brophy in the semifinals.
“All the juniors (last year), the thought going through our heads was, ‘We want to put another banner in our gym.' We could just visualize it and it’s coming true.”
Hiapo said she made some adjustments going into the final set, changing things up to mirror was had worked in wins over Desert Vista at the Brophy tournament earlier in the season.
“So I asked them, ‘I have to make a lineup change, it’s going to look like it is drastic but this is how you won at the Brophy tournament. What do you want to do?’” said Hiapo. “And they chose to go with that one.”
The Jackrabbits had their attack going early with Jake Jarvis and Jordan Thomas getting plenty of opportunities. But Mesa couldn’t take advantage of Highland early serving troubles. The Hawks made 11 service errors in the first two games.
“Normally we cut down our serving errors,” Hiapo said. “I haven’t seen this amount of serving errors for three-and-a-half weeks so it was a shock to me to see that happen but they are regrouping and coming back.”