DENVER – Dove Creek could make a compelling argument that they were the No. 2 team in the 1A classification this year.
In the program’s first state semifinal appearance in a decade, Dove Creek proved to the state that in a classification that has been notoriously dominated by Eastern Plains schools, Southwest Colorado has their place at the table on the state’s biggest stage.
No team pushed eventual state champion Merino (27-1) as hard as the Bulldogs, and even in their three-set defeat in the state semifinals, Dove Creek made sure to leave their mark on the Denver Coliseum floor.
Much like Merino, Dove Creek didn’t lose to a 1A school in the regular season on their way to a 26-4 final record, including a 4-2 record at the state tournament – with their only losses coming in their two meetings with the Rams.
The run served as the third straight year with multiple wins at state, an indicator of the caliber of athlete and continuity of program excellence achieved over that span.
Coinciding with that stretch, seniors Kalie and Kylie Gatlin, along with classmate Halee Beanland, enjoyed their last foray onto the court – having served as impact players during the course of a wildly successful past four years.
“I think the girls can leave with their heads high,” said head coach Lacey Murphy, “I couldn’t be prouder of this team and the great career end for our seniors.”
Dove Creek’s curtain call, a 25-20, 25-15, 25-23 loss to Merino, brought a close to the impressive careers with a cumulative record of 89-17. Kalie Gatlin surpassed 2,500 assists and 1,000 digs for her career, while sister Kylie also amassed over the 1K mark in both kills and digs.
“It’s been amazing to coach these girls over the years, and I will definitely miss them,” said Murphy.
Trailing two sets to one against No. 9 Haxtun in the opening round of the 1A state tournament, head coach Lacey Murphy called for time with her team trailing 11-6 in the fourth set.
Suddenly, like they had in some of their tight contests from the regular season, Dove Creek flipped a switch. A pair of mini rallies chipped away at the deficit while the Bulldog contingent inside the Denver Coliseum got louder with each point.
Dove Creek knotted the score at 18, then never looked back. Behind the powerful hitting of junior Ralynn Hickman, the Bulldogs rattled off 22 of the next 33 points to blow past Haxtun in the fourth and fifth sets, and into the second round of the tournament.
The No. 8 Bulldogs 18-25, 25-18, 22-25, 25-22, 15-7 win headlined an exciting opening salvo to the tournament.
“We had a lot of nerves to get out,” said Murphy of her team’s frenetic opening match. “Haxtun was a tough team, but our new players stayed in it (in their first state appearance).”
A hard-fought three-set loss to Merino in the second round sent Dove Creek to the contenders bracket, with plenty of work ahead of them to make it back for a rematch.
Dove Creek head coach Lacey Murphy made the observation – the bigger the moment, the better her team rises to the occasion.
Wins over No. 10 Cheraw (25-20, 25-22, 25-18), No. 5 Otis (21-25, 25-18, 25-20, 25-20), and No. 3 McClave (22-25, 25-12, 25-17, 26-24) in the contenders bracket showed the never-say-die attitude of the Bulldogs.
“I think they finally put it together,” said Murphy of her team’s resolve and complete-team efforts in the three matches. “We’ve been pushing to go to the next level, and stay aggressive from start to finish.”
Against McClave, the Cardinals squeaked past Lacey Murphy’s Bulldogs in set one, 25-22, as the ‘Dogs once again saw themselves in a hole – the third match in which they would rally from a set down.
Placement superseded power in the second set against the Cardinals, as senior Kylie Gatlin found pockets on the floor where McClave couldn’t reach, building a nine-point lead at 17-8. Twin sister Kalie Gatlin made life miserable at the net for Cardinal hitters, picking up blocks on consecutive points to extend the lead to 19-9.
Sophomore Hadley Hatfield belted kills on back-to-back points to keep the Bulldog bench fired up, before junior Ralynn Hickman’s service sequence put the set away, 25-12.
In the third, the Bulldogs got back to the heavy hitting, jolting an 8-1 run behind the power of Kylie Gatlin and Hickman to build a 14-7 lead mid-frame.
Meanwhile, the lively play that aided the Bulldogs to extended points in wins over Cheraw and Otis served them well again. Williams, Hatfield, and Jenessa Barragan made a number of diving digs to sustain plays that eventually led to Bulldog kills. The lead ballooned to 20-12, and Dove Creek kept McClave at arm’s length for the rest of the set, with Hickman’s kill icing the 25-17 third set win.
The third-ranked Cardinals jumped out on Dove Creek in the fourth, blocking multiple DC attacks while constructing a 7-0 start. Dove Creek began to chip away, closing with 11-7, thanks to working around the blocking walls with some well-placed set attacks. The energy was squarely back on the Dove Creek side after a 5-0 run knotted the score at 12 with senior Halee Beanland at the service line.
Hatfield and sophomore Allex Williams helped continue to turn the tide with strong serve strings, as Dove Creek took their first lead of the set at 19-18. From there, the Bulldogs extended the lead to 23-20, only to see McClave rally for four straight points to take the lead back, 24-23.
Big plays in big moments, it had been the Bulldogs’ mantra all tournament – Dove Creek staved off set point, then Hickman came up with the point of the match with a smash from the middle of the net to put down a McClave pass.
The Cardinals couldn’t return the serve on match point, and Dove Creek clinched their spot in the state semifinals for the first time since 2013.