Vail Christian splits at state
DENVER – Vail Christian experienced the full spectrum of the state-tournament experience Friday at the Denver Coliseum.
The No. 4 Saints had the high of their first state win in school history, downing No. 5 Wiley, 24-26, 25-23, 25-21, 25-20, in the 1A tournament opener at 8 a.m. Six hours later, Vail Christian looked nothing like the team which had made it this far, losing to No. 8 Simla, 25-10, 25-18, 25-18.
“Both teams were different than they were this morning,” Saints coach Cathy Alexander said after her team’s second game of the day – she had scouted Simla earlier in the day. “We’ve never been in this pressure situation before at this high level. It affected some of them eventually.”
Despite the highs and lows Friday, Vail Christian still controls its own destiny, going into today’s pool-play finale. If the Saints can beat No. 1 Fleming – and there have been major upsets already in all classes of the tournament – they’ll advance to this afternoon’s 1A semifinals.
“We’re going to go back and have dinner and watch a movie,” Saints senior Tracey Salgado said. “Just doing things together helps. We’re just going to do what we do for every game that got us here, and do it against Flemming.”
Everything came up roses for the Saints in the morning against Wiley.
The Saints overcame the understandable state jitters to notch a four-game win over the Panthers.
“That’s amazing,” Saints outside hitter Reanna Sutherland said. “I’m speechless.”
“Isn’t it awesome? We did it well, and we weren’t playing on the top of our game,” Alexander said. “That was to be expected and I’d bet (Wiley wasn’t) either. For the first match of the tournament, it was a lot louder than they thought.”
The Saints had been a combined 0-6 in their first two appearances down here at the Denver Coliseum, but Friday morning was clearly different.
Even after the Saints lost the first game of the match by a tight 26-24 count, it was clear they were comfortable in their environment.
McKenzie O’Brien and Kylie Alexander served the Saints out to a 12-3 lead in Game 2 with outside-hitter Ashlyn Gruber officially en fuego. Wiley stubbornly battled back to tie at 22-22, but the Panthers spent themselves doing so. Gruber slammed down the game-winning point.
In the crucial third game, the Saints and Panthers traded points to around 10, and then the Saints started getting contributions from all over the court. Gruber, sophomore Paris Baker and senior Emily Irwin lifted Vail Christian to a 20-12 lead. The Saints’ aggressive serving paid off throughout the match.
After another Irwin ace, setter Alexander showed her versatility with a tip over the net for a 24-20 advantage and the Saints were off to a 2-1 lead.
In the fourth and final game, Vail Christian pulled away with key blocks at the net from Baker, as well as a resurgent Sutherland, having shaken off her nerves, knocking down several attacks.
“We talked about focusing in on the red court and seeing just the players that are there and having tunnel vision, instead of looking at the big picture,” Cathy Alexander said. “They settled down. Ashlyn was lights out and played phenomenal.”
As can happen with high school sports – even at the state tournament – Vail Christian was a completely different team in the second game of pool play against Simla. Meanwhile, those same Cubs, who got thrashed by Fleming earlier in the day, seemingly could do no wrong.
Simla outside-hitter Samantha Protsman crushed everything that came her way, and the Saints had no answer. Cubs libero Jaci Digby served nine-straight points, staking her team to a 23-8 lead in Game 1.
The Saints seemed to find their footing a little more in the final two games, but hitting errors never allowed for a comeback.
“We’ve had one or two matches like this where we’ve let the other team get inside our heads and control our side of the court versus us controlling it,” Cathy Alexander said. “But we’ve always played teams at a level where we could pull it back up. But we’re at ta high level now, the top of the top.”
Alexander has scouted Fleming for today’s match. While beating the Wildcats today at 8 a.m. would be an upset, it’s not out of the question at this topsy-turvy tournament. Class 5A No. 1 Eaglecrest fell to No. 5 Doherty. In 4A, No. 8 Longmont toppled No. 2 Durango. Also in 4A, No. 4 Mullen is 0-2, and all but out of the tournament. Class 3A probably has the biggest shocker as No. 8 University knocked off six-time defending champion Colorado Springs Christian.
“Absolutely. We can come in and play really well and have more hitters on, and Fleming can be off too,” Alexander said. “If we play every point and every game to win, things can change fast.”
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