When you’re facing a team that starts five players listed at 6 feet or taller, how do you prepare?
That was Mountain Ridge’s dilemma Saturday in the Division I state semifinals, but coach Jen McGauley had plan in practice to prepare her squad for Horizon’s set of “trees.”
“We had coaches on boxes triple blocking each positioin,” McGauley said. “(Horizon) has three girls between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4. We just worked on covering them and having really tough serves. We had two girls go in just to serve and that worked well for the most part.”
However, in the end, Horizon’s state tournament experience helped it pull out a 3-2 victory (23-25, 25-20, 17-25, 26-24, 15-11) Saturday at Grand Canyon University to advance to its third straight finals.
The Huskies will face No. 3 Gilbert on Monday night at 7:45 p.m. at GCU after Gilbert knocked out No. 2 Xavier earlier Saturday.
“Our captains did a good job keeping everyone level,” said Horizon coach Valerie McKenzie. “We have six returning players, four are starters, but we’re a fairly young team with some sophomores and a freshman, too.”
The Huskies used a 6-1 run to ice the match, but it wasn’t easy. Nikki Hess funneled the ball to the middle for sophomore Christine Johnson who attacked the left wing. Mountain Lion junior Kami Zoller got a hand on the Johnson’s attempt and the defense scrambled to gain control before hitting the court.
“Running our middles in the last two sets was a big difference for us,” McKenzie said. “Mountain Ridge played awesome volleyball. Their defense was great. Their hitters played really well and it was a dog fight.”
The under-sized Lions made Horizon earn every point, McKenzie said, and had a chance to move on in Game 4.
Down from the start, Mountain Ridge battled back from a 5-1 start and a 14-11 lead midway through the set on a Hess kill. The Mountain Lions tied the game at 18, but again the Huskies tried to pull away when Sierra Nobley killed an errant dig to go up 23-21.
McGauley called a timeout and Mountain Ridge went on a 3-0 run to force match point when Nobley’s tip landed wide.
The Huskies fought back with kills from Victoria Fajardo and Hess before Samantha Shoehair served an ace to force Game 5.
“It was such a long, hard-fought match, and they never gave up,” McKenzie said. “This team has so much heart and it really came out today.”
The Lions did a good job mixing up their offense, working off the wings and hitting around the Horizon blockers. They built an 11-point lead in Game 3 on a block from Johnson that fell wide. They would push that lead up to 23-10 on a cross-court kill from Lindsay Skadeland and iced the game on a Zoller block.
“The one thing we talked about before the game was leaving it all on the court,” McGauley said. “That’s what they did right up to the last point of the game. We win as a team and we lose as a team. These girls really came together this season.”