If Mesa was supposed to be intimidated by the bigger, talented No. 2 seed, the Jackrabbits didn’t show it.
But at playoff time, talent rises to the top and, with minimal mistakes, Hamilton advanced to the Division I volleyball state tournament quarterfinals on Tuesday, with a sweep of No. 15 Mesa, 25-18, 25-17, 25-18.
Hamilton will play host to No. 7 Peoria Centennial on Thursday in the quarterfinals. The semifinals are Saturday with the championship next Tuesday, both held at Mesquite High School.
“There’s nerves because it’s playoffs and everything has to be perfect, it has to go just they way you want and we have been training so hard,” middle hitter Tianna Matthews said. “We can’t take any team for granted because you don’t want to sit back.”
The Huskies (35-5) have multiple weapons, although a couple of them are underclassmen who could have been easily rattled in the high-pressure of the state tournament.
“It’s kind of like March Madness,” said Hamilton coach Sharon Vanis. “The first one you always look for that upset. The kids are so pumped up, serves are flying out of bounds. I’m glad to get it under my belt.”
First-round jitters? Not for freshman Preslie Anderson and sophomore Jessica Williams. The 6-foot-2 Anderson had nine kills and was steady while Williams ran the offense as setter. Add in 6-foot-3 junior hitter McKenna Woodford (nine kills) and you start to see the options Hamilton has and the subsequent disadvantage Mesa dealt with.
“We played them about a month and a half ago and did not put up a good fight (25-12, 25-7, 25-20), so I’m proud of them," Jackrabbits coach Amy Strawn said. "They didn’t back down. We even got down and they came back and they did everything we asked them to do as far as being resilient and mentally tough and hanging in there but Hamilton is solid, a lot of weapons.”
Williams and freshman Sydney Lostumo (18 assists) spread the ball around and even after some early unforced errors, settled into their net game against Mesa, which didn't have a player over 6-feet-tall and only two over 5-foot-9.
The Jackrabbits (22-17) held their own. They won their last three matches and eight of their last nine power-point matches to earn their first postseason spot since going out in the first round in 2009.
They didn’t get blown out and actually scored the first three points of the final set in a last stand. Senior outside hitter Paige Gardner had eight kills and libero Gloria Tukuafu was all over the floor.
But Hamilton, having lost nearly all of its state semifinalist team of a year ago, was too much for the Jackrabbits on this night.
“I’m proud of where they’ve come,” Vanis said. “I didn’t expect it but they are a group of kids that are different than I’ve had before but they’ve learned how to play together, they work well together and they have each other figured out. In volleyball, that’s half the battle.”
Sophomore Olivia Hallaran had 12 kills and Shelby Babcock had 20 digs for Hamilton.
“I think our main goal is to stay focused and make sure we keep that drive to win,” Matthews said. “Just playing together as a team.”