Her team having just avoided not only a disastrous third-game collapse, but also being swept inside Ignacio High School Gymnasium in the process, Dolores senior Kamri Willbanks knew how crucial her first Game 4 trip to the service line would be if the visitors were to have any chance Tuesday night of forcing a tie-breaking Game 5.
And after a serve sent long by IHS junior Laci Brunson, trimming the Volleycats’ advantage to 9-6, Willbanks stood behind the stripe with ball in hand – exactly the situation a setter seemingly would seek.
“That is the one thing in the game that I know I can control; I just had to get it over,” Willbanks said. “Personally, I just knew I had to … get it done. At the beginning of the game we all came together and said we cannot let our energy go down. Like, that is what keeps us up, keeps us pumped.”
Able to hold serve for six points, sandwiched around an Ignacio timeout when the score reached 9-9 after a kill by Dolores’ Mikayla Pruett, Willbanks certainly did her part to swell the visitors’ confidence as the Lady Bears surged ahead. Unluckily, the 12-9 lead would fall under siege and crumble – unlike a 12-5 lead in Game 3, which somehow survived despite IHS eventually approaching as close as 16-14.
The ’Cats rallied back to tie Game 4 at 13-all and regain a 16-13 upper hand behind junior Grace Gonzales’ serving. And despite Dolores patiently rallying back to within just a point, 21-20, when Gonzales spiked a ball long, Ignacio would sew up a 25-22, 25-16, 19-25, 25-20 victory with an ace by senior Lexy Young, a Gonzales kill off Chandler Smith’s block, and a Young serve unable to be played after its initial deflection.
Ending a nine-match losing streak against the longtime 2A/1A San Juan Basin League power, the win was IHS’ first over DHS since Sept. 2016 and improved the program’s head-to-head record against the Lady Bears to 7-25 (postseason clashes included) since joining the SJBL back in ’08.
“Especially knowing … that I don’t think we’d ever beat them while I’ve been in high school – like, this is the first win for me,” said IHS senior Alexis Pontine. “So that’s really cool; it was a really exciting night.”
Even if it wasn’t always pretty. Gonzales began the match with a kill, and Ignacio raced out to a 5-1 lead, thanks to a Pontine kill, a Solymar Cosio over-pass block and a Harmony Reynolds service ace. With Dolores (5-6, 3-1 SJBL) not yet hitting on all cylinders or managing to regularly set up attacks for senior weapon Erin Brown, the ’Cats (5-2, 4-1) swiftly grew their Game 1 lead to 18-9 on a Pontine block of Nayana Wilderson.
A later Gonzales roll shot maintained that nine-point margin at 20-11, but after Brown placed a tip shot away from Gonzales, the Lady Bears fought all the way back to 23-21 when IHS head coach Shasta Pontine used her second timeout following an assertive Brown kill.
“We just have to stay loud and on top of it,” Willbanks said. “If we lose energy we kind of lose momentum … don’t play as well. In the first game I think we had a little trouble passing…. With a good pass, there’s a good set, and normally a good kill!”
Brown’s next attempt flew wide, however, and after Gonzales netted a serve she’d still secure the ’Cats a 1-0 match lead when, after Smith served Pontine and Pontine passed successfully to Brunson, Gonzales smacked a kill from out of the back row.
Able to then erase a 6-3 deficit early in Game 2 and finally forge ahead 8-7, Ignacio would soon ride a 7-1 run out to a 19-11 lead, forcing Dolores skipper Gina Hollen to burn her second timeout in the stanza.
And though able to stave off game point three times once an unplayable Brunson serve had made the score 24-13, DHS would go down 2-0 in the match when Pontine deftly placed a tip off a Brown block—the sort of standout-vs-standout thinking and execution the Volleycats will hope to employ and utilize Saturday at the Simla Invitational where their known opponents, expected to offer stiff resistance, will be Oak Creek-based Soroco and Kit Carson.
“I think that improves us,” Gonzales said. “When we go into bigger, closer games we’re prepared and will be able to make adjustments.”
Having gone 3-0 to win their own late-August tournament, Soroco stood 6-1 overall prior to visiting Simla neighbors Calhan on Friday, and checked in at No. 6 in the Sept. 20 CHSAANow.com Class 2A rankings. Coming off a home loss on the 17th to High Plains League rivals Cheraw, KCHS stood 6-5 overall – but remained an ‘Others Receiving Votes’ inclusion in the 1A poll – prior to hosting non-league 1A Walsh on Friday.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a tough one but I … feel like we have a really good team,” said Brunson, a libero about a week into her new role as setter due to Kacey Brown recovering from injury. “There’s lots of talent everywhere and I’m excited.”
“We definitely need to practice hard; it’s going to be a big tournament,” Alexis Pontine said. “I feel like it’s higher competition than most teams in our league, and that’s exciting.”