DENVER — There really are benefits to starting the state volleyball tournament at 8 in the morning.
“I don’t like to play at 8,” said Vail Christian coach Cathy Alexander, whose teams seem to have a tradition of getting early wake-up calls for state. “But it’s really nice to be in here and be able to get used to the height of the ceiling. We had 30 minutes on the floor before we played.”
And the Saints looked crisp, dispatching Kit Carson, 25-16, 25-18, 25-20, setting up a key tilt with Dove Creek today with a spot in the Class 1A semifinals on the line at the Denver Coliseum.
While much of the Vail Christian faithful needed a healthy dose of Starbucks for the early-morning match, it really does help to get some extra time on the floor of the Coliseum. Five matches are played simultaneously. There are non-stop whistles, most of which have nothing to do with your match. Volleyballs are flying in from other courts. Then, there’s the size of the arena, which is a wee bit bigger than the Saints’ home court, the Wheeler Athletic Center.
“My stomach was going crazy,” sophomore setter Remy Beveridge said. “I was so nervous, but it settled down once we got going. You just focus on your court and you’re just fine.
“Don’t listen to the whistles. I just look at the ref. Everything else, you just watch the other side. It helps if you talk, calling out where the hitters are and where (I am). I get louder and you do a lot of hand-signaling,” she said.
As so often is required in state competition, not only did the Saints usual suspects shine, but they also got contributions from up and down their lineup. As usual, senior Celia Smith was on her game with a kill in the first game, followed by outside-hitter Sara Coulter for a 5-1 lead. Coulter served up two straight aces, and Vail Christian pushed its advantage to 10-5.
“We’ve definitely prepped a lot this week about what it’s going to look like,” Coulter said. “I think we performed well.”
Taylor Alexander found her groove later in the first stanza, and Bella McCormick and Beveridge had nice serving runs to close it out.
As Game 2 progressed, it was also clear that Smith’s fellow middle blocker, Kristen Currey, was rolling, giving the Saints’ rotation some serious depth. While often over-shadowed by Smith, Currey also brings a bit of experience to this Saints squad. She is a holdover from Vail Christian’s last two state teams in 2010 and 2011.
“Being a captain on the team is definitely different than being a freshman on the team,” she joked.
The Saints’ biggest concern when it came to Kit Carson was the Wildcats’ Aurelia Isenbart. The junior outside-hitter got her share of kills, but did not go on a rampage.
“She’s a big hitter,” Cathy Alexander said. “When she gets fired up, as you could see, in the second and third game, she can lift her team up really well. We got enough touches on the ball that frustrated her enough. They just didn’t all go down, which is nice.”
The Saints and Wildcats were tied in the third at 14, when Smith pounded an emphatic kill. Vail Christian’s Jessie Hartley kept Kit Carson off balance with six points in a row from behind the line to stake the Saints to a 21-14 lead. Taylor Alexander ripped it from there, and Beveridge served up an “ice cold” ace to finish it.
“That was super-exciting to come in and win in three,” Coulter said.
Next up is Dove Creek. The top-seeded Bulldogs disposed of Kit Carson in three as well. While Dove Creek is the favorite — the Saints are No. 8 — the two teams met during the district finals on Oct. 26 in Olathe. The Bulldogs beat the Saints, 25-17, 19-25, 25-22, 25-21.
The Bulldogs feature Shelbie Knuckles, who will start most matches swinging and then switch to tips over the net.
“We need to block her,” Cathy Alexander said. “We’ll put her up against Celia. We just need to take that ball away and then she starts tipping. It’s kind of obvious. She has a lot of kills and a lot of her kills are tips. She can jump real high and see the open spots. Our front and left backs need to move for those tips.”
The Saints watched the morning games to get a peak not only at Dove Creek, but the teams from Pool IV, whom the Saints might see in the semifinals if they are to advance.
After that, the Saints got out of the Coliseum for family time, followed by a team dinner and a movie. The flick was “Remember the Titans.”