Well aware of the talent taken away by graduation just a few months ago, Montezuma-Cortez senior Sariah Robinson knew she and all the returning Lady Panthers would have their work cut out for them filling the vacancies.
“I was nervous at first,” she said Thursday night, “but I think this team has really grown together. It was a little bit of a struggle … trying to run new plays, play a quicker game – which is super-fun. I think that was our best goal.”
On paper, that and most goals that Montezuma-Cortez might have set for the fall volleyball campaign would seem to have been reached, including four consecutive wins out of the gate. Boosting confidence even more, three victories have come on the road – including Thursday’s 25-17, 25-16, 17-25, 25-20 win at Ignacio. M-CHS players can’t wait to bring the momentum back home for their most trying test to date.
“I’m so excited to play Bayfield,” said senior Avery Wright, looking ahead to the 3A Intermountain League powers’ Sept. 7 match. “They’ve … not always necessarily been our ‘rivals,’ but … I’ve played club with some of those girls. We’ve always, like, known each other. So it will be a good game.”
“Bayfield will definitely be one of our hardest (opponents) in league,” Robinson said, “but I think we’re going to go in with confidence. We’re going to work on our defense; it’ll be a really fun and difficult game.”
Coming in well-rested after a 2-up, 2-down result at last Saturday’s Eaton-hosted Northern Colorado Slam, Bayfield will arrive 3-2 overall (0-0 IML). Wins over 5A Loveland and 4A Longmont, plus solid efforts in losses to 4A No. 3 Mead and Broomfield Holy Family combined to vault the Lady Wolverines into the CHSAANow.com’s Top 10 at No. 8. (Holy Family rose to No. 10 in 4A.)
M-CHS, meanwhile, slipped from No. 7 in the 3A poll and into the “Others Receiving Votes” group despite tripping 2A/1A San Juan Basin League contenders Telluride in a season-opening five-gamer inside the MinerDome. M-CHS then swept SJBL frontrunners Dolores and 1A Monticello, Utah, before invading Ignacio’s gym, where the Volleycats were hungry to follow up on a road sweep of Mancos two nights before.
But perhaps a little too hungry.
With their early rhythm disrupted by no fewer than 13 point-surrendering errors, Ignacio fell behind at 6-5 in Game 1 and never recovered. With back-to-back Alexis Pontine service aces at M-CHS’ Elinore Muhonen’s expense, the ’Cats came as close as 20-16 before junior Trinity Strohl served out of bounds on the second game point.
Classmate Grace Gonzales quickly made amends opening Game 2, hammering a kill and knocking Robinson off the service line. Pontine then stuffed down an M-CHS overpass of a Gonzales serve, and Gonzales followed that with an ace for a strong 3-0 advantage.
But after Wright, lightly used offensively during the match until Games 3 and 4, pounded a back-row kill, Montezuma-Cortez quickly regained the upper hand at 5-4 and strengthen it to 10-4, helped by two Elise Galbraith service gems and a Wright stuff of Ignacio setter Kacey Brown.
The guests’ lead swiftly swelled to 19-9 after a Gonzales swing went off the antenna, and head coach Shasta Pontine was forced to burn her second timeout of the stanza, but little came of it. Brown sent a free ball out of play to put M-CHS on game point, and the Lady Panthers went up 2-0 in the match when Wright and junior Madi Carver combined to deny a Strohl spike.
M-CHS then rode a Wright back-row kill and two subsequent Ignacio errors out to a 10-3 lead in Game 3, and Pontine quickly called a timeout.
But something in the Volleycats (2-1, 2-0 SJBL) clicked, and a successful Harmony Reynolds tip shot plus a Gonzales ace capped a four-point burst that pressed M-CHS skipper Caroline Glover into a timeout with Ignacio down only a point, 12-11.
Ignacio tied at 13, then built a 21-14 lead. Gonzales brought up game point with a kill, and senior Lexy Young then aced M-CHS junior libero Ashlyn Hall.
“I know they can play like that all the time,” said Shasta Pontine, “but I think nerves got the best of them in the beginning.”
With the home crowd now in full voice behind them, the ’Cats never let Montezuma-Cortez (4-0, 0-0 IML) gain a lead larger than two points for most of Game 4.The sides would then deadlock at 15, 16, 17 and 18 before M-CHS moved ahead 20-18.
Pontine alertly called a timeout, and Gonzales responded with a re-energizing kill. But a passing error, a kill by M-CHS junior Carlie McClellan, and a Robinson serve put Ignacio down 23-19. Robinson netted her next serve, and Wright cracked another back-row kill. The match ended when Alexis Pontine was unable to smack a high set both inside the antenna and over the net.
“I think in that third set we definitely could have gone downhill, we could have gotten in our head. … But we rose up, fought in that fourth set, which I think is super important,” said Wright. “It was a good game. It definitely tested our strength.”
“Once we … started to adjust, our defense – our blockers – started adjusting, and it worked out well,” Robinson said. “Being able to talk as a team, correct each other without attitudes or anything and … spreading the net – it’s working all together.”
“This was a different-caliber team, they hit on us more,” Shasta Pontine said, “and we just hadn’t had that experience yet this year.”
Up next for Ignacio will be a home match Sept. 9, against non-league 2A Del Norte.