The first three sets of a state volleyball final are rarely forgettable. But when people who were not there see the score of the fourth set — 32-30 — they understand why.
Those who watched No. 1 Centennial and No. 3 Phoenix Sunnyslope battle for the 5A state title Wednesday night at Mesquite High School in Gilbert will remember the last 30 minutes for quite a while. The Vikings trailed two sets to one and began the fourth set like their title bid depended on it, building a 8-4 lead.
It was 24-21 when the Coyotes saved three consecutive set points — they would deny eight chances to end the set. The Vikings held off one set point but Centennial made the second count, with senior Kara Spicer’s block sliding off the arms of two Sunnyslope players.
That play gave Centennial (28-9) the 25-22, 15-25, 25-23, 32-30 victory and its third state volleyball title. The others came in 1998 and 2008 when Cari Bauer was the lead assistant. This was the first-year head coach’s first trophy.
“It was just crazy. We were all trying to keep our cool and there were so many people there. You don’t want to mess up and you can’t play tentative. We did a good job in the last game of pushing,” senior setter Dani Wiley said
Centennial built and maintained a steady lead in the three-point range in the first set. For the rest of the night, the team played catch up.
Sunnyslope (28-14) never really let the Coyotes in the second set as juniors Kayla Matthews and Tayisha McGruder had their way up front. They carried the momentum into the third set, taking a quick 7-1 lead.
Centennial roared back, tying the third set at 8, but did not take the lead until freshman Ashley Lifgren’s tip made in 17-16.
Spicer’s ace grew the advantage to 20-17 but now Sunnyslope battled to 22-21. A Lifgren tip and kills by sophomore Somner Kasney and Spicer the Coyotes maintain their two point lead and go up 2-1 overall.
“We were ahead in game one but at no point in the rest of the match were we really ahead. This team knows the scoreboard doesn’t matter — just grind and be us,” Coach Bauer said.
That was only the appetizer as Sunnyslope tried to save its season by taking leads of 7-1 and 8-4 early in the fourth. Coach Bauer called time out in a still fairly routine set, trailing 16-12.
The Vikings stayed up four at 22-18, but a Kasney spike and Centennial point cut the lead in half. A Matthews kill, Spicer block and Matthews tip left the score at 24-21.
Defense kept the Coyotes in striking distance and now they turned to their middle blocker for offense. Spicer powered three straight kills to tie the fourth set.
Matthews briefly regained the Vikings lead but and error and lift call gave Centennial a chance to close it out. Junior Amanda Carlson kept Sunnyslope alive and a McGruder tip regained their advantage.
A serve for the set sailed out but Carlson’s kill made it 28-27. Lifgren and McGruder exchanged kills, then Kasney tied the set at 29.
“I’m really thankful for my blockers up there. They always get good touches so I can get the ball up. I didn’t like how I was playing the first two sets. I went out there with a new attitude and got some balls up to help keep the ball alive,” senior libero Reagan Leonard said.
Matthews again came up big but her kill was Sunnyslope’s last point. A Spicer tip and hit long preceded match point.
The Spicer block landed on a pair of Vikings, who could not control it. By then the celebration was on and the Coyotes denied the seventh Sunnyslope state title in nine years — and became the first team to beat the Vikings in the finals during that span.
“We have an awesome defense and it really helps. I think pushing the middle at the very end pushed us over the edge,” Spicer said.
It is hard so say which part of Wednesday’s events was more likely — Centennial winning a state title with half its rotation being freshmen and sophomores, or Bauer coaching the championship team.
“It’s funny, some girl actually said we’re going to have a movie written about us. It’s so cool. It’s once in a lifetime. It’s Bauer’s first year and we did it for her,” Leonard said.
After longtime couch Carly Bourland stepped down to pursue her masters’ degree, Centennial conducted a coaching search and was poised to name Chad Speer as head coach in early February.
An outcry from parents, current students and former players and a change.org petition with more than 1,400 signatures caused the Peoria Unified School District to step in.
On Feb. 18, the district and school reversed the initial decision and named Bauer the Centennial girls volleyball head coach. She was an assistant for 21 years and the only head coach the Coyotes boys volleyball program has known.
“She’s always been saying that it’s for us but in reality, we were all playing for her,” senior defensive specialist Taytum Yinger said.
For her part, Coach Bauer entered the year thinking she was leading a very good team, but more of a 5A dark horse than a state title contender.
The sophomores Kasney and Taleah Cooper and freshmen Lifgren and Nyjha Marcelin stepped in almost seamlessly alongside seniors Leonard, Spicer, Wiley and Yinger. A fifth senior, Autumn Hoffner, also is on the roster.
That it in stark contrast to the program’s previous two state titlists, whom Coach Bauer said were full of veterans.
“When we started in August, I would have never predicted this. About a month into the season I realized the young ones didn’t play ‘young.’ I thought if we could keep up this level of play we’re right in the mix,” Coach Bauer said. “We’ve never had such youth be so important. The team has always done a good job of keeping the outside stuff out of the gym. It feels really good.”