Whether it was emotion, momentum or just plain talent, no one would have been surprised if either Highland or Gilbert won the state boys volleyball championship on Saturday night.
Both are perennial East Valley powers just a few miles from each other. The second-seeded Hawks have weapons throughout its lineup and entered the state tournament among the favorites, but hadn’t won a title since 2005. The No. 4 Tigers were the defending champions, playing on their home floor, and beat top-seed Desert Vista in the semifinal on Thursday.
It will go down as a sweep, but with scores of 25-20, 25-20, 25-22, it was anything but a rout. But for Highland, it was a return to the pinnacle after near-misses in two of the last three years.
The Hawks have had success, reaching the final in 2010 before losing in five sets to Glendale Deer Valley. But they missed the playoffs in 2011 and then stormed back to the semifinals a year ago as a No. 10 seed.
“It’s an amazing feeling, winning in the rival gym,” said Highland senior Ryan Morrison. “It went so fast in my mind, I’m winning this.”
Chemistry, coach Vee Hiapo said, was the final piece of the puzzle.
“They had to find their own identity, but not realizing that their identity was exactly the same as everybody else’s," she said. "It was the ability of putting their teammates first and just loving what they did. Most of these boys have played to together for six years, they are younger brothers of older brothers who have playing for this program. So they knew coming into Highland what they needed to do.”
The Hawks also didn’t see themselves as the higher seed. Highland made fewer errors than Gilbert, and both teams struggled a bit with serving – the adrenaline was flowing with a standing-room only crowd surrounding them. But the Hawks seemed to keep their cool, with Collin Warde (35 assists) finding Greene (13 kills), Morrison (10 kills, 2 1-2 blocks) and big middle Hayden Nielson (11 kills).
“We were just going over aggressive,” outside hitter Jared Greene said. “We just wanted to win so bad, there were a couple of errors. That’s what happens.”
Neither team could get much separation so momentum ebbed and flowed much of the night. Highland had the lead for the entire first set – but by never more than five.
In a microcosm of the night, the Hawks spread the ball around for the final points of that first game. Ward fed Morrison on the right side for a kill to give Highland a 23-19 lead and then Greene put a ball away from the left on the next point.
Game two was similar, with Gilbert getting middle Nic Gibson (9 kills) in the action and Jarrett Neal (6 kills) finding some room. But the Tigers never led after 9-8 and when Highland ran off four straight points to take a 19-14 lead, Gilbert could not rally.
“This is the epic matchup,” Gilbert coach Jeff Grover said. “This is the great thing about boys volleyball in the East Valley. It was fun. It was a fun volleyball match to watch, unfortunately we didn’t get the win.”
The Hawks led early in game three, 13-6 at one point before Gilbert tried one last push. The Tigers took advantage of some unforced errors and with libero Chandler Baugh doing his powerful left-handed jump serve, scored four straight points to tie it at 20. Morrison turned it around with a kill and a block at the net off of a Gilbert return.
Neal’s kill put the Tigers within 22-21 but Morrison put one away cross-court and then blocked left-handed McKay Taylor (7 kills) at the net, and Highland was one point away.
A play later, Greene had the honors, hitting the ball long but off a Gilbert player’s fingertips for the championship point.
“In that very last set, they caught up on us,” Morrison said. “But we were taught that team unity and heart will overpower.”