There was no way Horizon's volleyball team would allow a repeat of a year ago.
“Last year, losing, that really just motivated us so much,” said standout hitter Nikki Hess, referring to her team’s loss to Gilbert in the 2011 state championship match after winning the first two sets.
On Tuesday, top-seeded Horizon again won the first two sets – and then lost the third.
“When we lost that third game, we just said, ‘that’s not happening again, we’re winning this, we have to come back, stay strong,’” Hess said. “Our team mission this year has been faith so we tried to have faith, in each other and every time we play.”
The Huskies were in control after two sets and then Xavier rallied to win third set in a bid to wrestle momentum away from the No. 1 seed and give the Gators' coach a proper sendoff into retirement.
Instead, Horizon held off No. 3 Xavier, 25-21, 25-23, 22-25, 25-20, to win the Division I state championship at Mesquite.
In 2011, Horizon beat Gilbert in the first two sets only to see the Tigers bounce back with a narrow win in the third set and then took the last two to win the title.
“After we got two sets up, we said, ‘Hey, this is not a Gilbert,’” Huskies coach Valerie McKenzie said. “We are going to go there and we are going to play hard. Even though we lost that third set, we were in that game and it was tight. I said it was time to be dominant. It’s time to be aggressive, and they just lit up.”
Outside hitter Sierra Nobley said the memories were close to the surface.
“That was nervewrecking,” she said of losing the third set. “I think we just lost focus a little bit. I think we were getting up tight we they got ahead. I think we were just off our game.”
Horizon calmed down enough to keep it close with the sixth-seeded Gators until Nobley got a pair of kills and Tess Clark added another to set up the final run, breaking a 17-17 tie. Xavier briefly got the lead but Lauren Conoti found Knobley and then Xavier had trouble keeping control.
Khalia Lanier hit it long and wide on a good set. Mia Teilborg went long down the middle and even after McHale called a timeout, Lanier missed on a tip down the line.
A Knobley kill, an uncharacteristic dink from Hess over a block and a kill by Christine Johnson gave the Huskies the title that eluded them 12 months ago.
“Horizon was the best team all year long, they did a great job, you have to take your hats to them, they’re an amazing team,” Xavier coach Tim McHale said. “My hat’s off to Val, it was fun to see her one more time.”
The Huskies won 5A Division II state titles in 2009 and 2010 by beating Desert Mountain both times. But hadn’t won in the top classification (no matter what it was called).
For McHale, the 23-year coach who announced previously that he was stepping down from Xavier after the season ended, it was just his second runner-up finish. He has won a state championship six times at Xavier, including a run of five wins in six years from 2005-2010.
McHale called Horizon one of the most physical teams he had seen in his career with a front line that all tower over 6-feet.
“It’s hard to put into words how much I care about these kids, it’s never been about any one person with Xavier volleyball,” McHale said. “This particular group, this particular staff taught me probably more this year than I have in the last 20 or so. So it’s about them.”