The Lady Longhorn volleyball team outdid even their coach’s expectations this past weekend when it finished third in the Coconino Invitational in Flagstaff.
The team made its best showing at the tournament, taking third out of a dozen teams. The performance comes on the heels of the team placing fourth at the Payson Invitational Tournament in early September, despite losing several players to injuries in the interim.
“I was extremely proud of them because we were really threadbare,” said coach Arnold Stonebrink. “We still have girls out with injuries, plus we had one backup front row player who never even showed up.”
With so few players available for the front row, if a girl performed poorly, Stonebrink had no one to sub in.
Luckily, everyone played hard and corrected their mistakes, he said.
In addition, the team fought back through the loser’s bracket, winning four straight games to make the final three.
“It took a lot of fortitude and energy, but they never got down,” Stonebrink said.
The tournament started out tough for the team, playing in one of the roughest pools Stonebrink has seen. But the girls rose to the challenge, winning seven of their 10 games.
The Longhorns battled Bradshaw Mountain first, sweeping both games. The victory was followed by two more big wins, this time against Valley Christian.
But the first win against Valley Christian almost didn’t happen. In the first set, the team blew a five-point lead and faced two set points.
Katelyn Curtis carried the team to victory.
Things started to come unplugged against Flagstaff, with the Longhorns winning one game and losing another. Tuba City followed with a clean sweep, outplaying the Horns 15-21 and 9-13.
The Longhorns finished strong against Page, winning both games.
“We were able to gut out and win the tough ones,” Stonebrink said.
With the No. 5 seed, the team opened championship bracket play against No. 12 Chinle and walked away with two solid wins.
The team then played Tuba City, a formidable team that outplayed the Longhorns a week earlier in the Longhorns’ own tournament.
“This time around, the result was the same — we lost,” Stonebrink said. “It was disheartening because a win would have given us an excellent chance of breezing into the final three. Instead, we were looking at a long trip through the loser’s bracket to reach our goals.”
The Horns breezed through two wins against Bradshaw Mountain and confidently took on Northland Prep — too confident for Stonebrink. “We were making mental mistakes and it was 14-14 when I noticed the girls were still goofy and smiling,” he said. “Their heads definitely weren’t in it.”
Five service errors later, the team faced a 17-19 deficit. Jayvee player Jaden Brunson came through big time.
“She nailed three kills in a four-point Payson run, and we won the nail biter 21-19,” he said. “During the break between sets, I chewed the girls out for their lack of focus and intensity and in the second set we won, 21-12.”
The Longhorns then blew through No. 3 seed Coconino, propelling themselves into the final four.
Nerves finally caught up with the girls against No. 1 Sedona. Although they carried a modest lead through most of the set, they gave up four straight points and lost the first game. The Horns rebounded, however, with a win in the second game.
The third game against Sedona featured one of the best plays Stonebrink had seen the team complete. After trading the lead, Sedona was two points away from the win.
Megan Wessel then served two winners, giving Payson the lead. But Sedona rebounded, tying it up at 10.
“A perfect pass and set gave Emmee Ashby a chance to win it, but her hit was blocked. She bumped up the block, and it created a joust at the net between Rachel Creighton and a much taller, bigger Sedona middle hitter,” he said. “Their hands met the ball simultaneously slightly on our side of the net. Rachel kept her hand on the ball and somehow muscled the ball onto Sedona’s side of the net. The ball barely touched a desperate Scorpion forearm before falling to the floor!”
The gutsy play gave Payson the win.
Payson’s reward for making the final three was taking on Tuba City again. “Playing them is tough with their solid serving, consistent passing, great coaching and smart, powerful hitting,” he said. “Playing them is like hitting your head against the wall.”
The Warriors outplayed the Horns in the first set, but battled back to tie things up in the second game. Emma Randall had eight kills and Jaden Brunson, four more. It was enough to tie things up, but the team ran out of steam.
Tuba City eventually won by four points.
Tuba City defeated Flagstaff in the championship finale.
Katelyn Curtis finished the tournament with more than half of her hits going down for kills. Rachel Creighton also hit well as a setter.
Stonebrink praised Megan Wessel as the team’s No. 1 passer with Kyleah Morgan in second.
“The girls took turns shining on serving: Megan Wessel led in efficiency, Mckenzie Creighton led in service winner percentage and Curtis led in aces, with 13,” he said. “Megan Wessel led the team in digs followed by twin Kaitlyn Wessel. Rachel Creighton led the team in assists.”
This week, Payson takes on Camp Verde at home Tuesday, Fountain Hills on the road Wednesday and Saguaro on the road Thursday.
The team sits at No. 24 in power points with the top two dozen teams eventually heading to state.