DENVER - Under the bright lights of the Denver Coliseum, the state volleyball tournament brings out the best in competition as 12 teams from each classification fight to claim the awe-inspiring golden volleyball trophy.
For Cherry Creek (22-6), playing at the state level is nothing new. As the dominant Bruins have become a staple in the tournament, the team looked to earn its sixth state title.
For Heritage (19-8), it has been a while since the Eagles were thought to be an elite team, but this year’s squad was determined to prove doubters wrong and fight for its first championship.
With a new state format, each team must win their three-team pool in order to advance to the semifinal matches. As a result, every match was played with high intensity, leaving no room for error.
Heritage had the daunting task of starting off its tournament against second-seeded Eaglecrest (21-5). Predicted to be a front-runner to go against powerhouse Doherty in the finals, the Raptors entered as the clear favorites. Someone forgot to tell Heritage that, as the Eagles shockingly took on the Raptors full force and ran away with a 19-25, 25-20, 25-22, 21-25, 15-9 victory.
“We want to prove to everyone that we can do it,” said Eagles senior Katie Pyles. “I think that everyone on this team has so much heart. We just don’t want to give up, because everyone else isn’t giving up.”
Heritage had just one match to rest before they faced 2011 state runner-up Grandview (22-7). Adding to the stress, the Eagles would have to play without starting middle blocker Emilie Young as she re-injured her knee at the end of the Eaglecrest match.
After a quick first set where the Eagles earned only 10 points, it looked as if the underdog team was finished. Somehow, with a spark of energy, Heritage found a way to stop the attack of the Wolves to take command of the next two sets.
“It’s just kind of a blue-collar mentality. Just work, work, work,” Eagles coach Doug Schafer said. “I think our defense has been amazing. They just dig balls and outwork people sometimes.”
With match point in the fourth set, it seemed as though the Eagles could do the near impossible, take down two Centennial League teams in the state tournament. After two Eagle’s hitting errors and a net violation, the Wolves stole back the game. The experienced Grandview squad then came up big in the final set to secure the 25-10, 20-25, 23-25, 28-26, 15-10 win.
“We put ourselves in a great position to be in this pool and go against teams we could beat,” Pyles said. “I think that game we were just tired and we couldn’t pull through.”
With the loss, the Eagles could only watch its improbable run come to an end on day two as Grandview defeated Eaglecrest to win the pool.
“It’s not about winning or losing, but about playing well,” Schafer said. “We were right there.”
Fourth-seeded Cherry Creek began its tournament against a strong Lakewood (19-8) squad. The Bruins’ flawless play lead to a 25-22, 25-13, 25-19 victory and crushed the Tigers hopes of returning to the semis.
“If we can just play together and keep that heart, then all you have to do is keep working,” Bruins coach Sally Moos said. “You get down here and anybody can win.”
On day two, Cherry Creek took on Mountain Vista (20-7). Though the Golden Eagles came out with energy, they could not stop the ferocious Cherry Creek offense. With outside hitter Lauren Marr leading the way, the Bruins grabbed the 25-15, 26-28, 25-22, 25-13 win.
After winning the pool, Cherry Creek would next play 6-foot-4-inch dynamo Haleigh Washington and nationally ranked Doherty (29-0) in the semifinals.
In a game of momentum, Doherty and Cherry Creek traded off mighty offensive plays and wicked defensive stands. Though the Bruins had the victory in sight after taking the 2-1 lead, the Spartans struck back in the final sets to seize the 25-23, 23-25, 20-25, 25-16, 15-10 semi-final match win.
“We gave it our all in that last game,” Marr said.
“Win or lose, inside we won because we left everything on the court.”
Marr, who finished the tournament with 42 kills, and fellow senior Hannah Merkle played the last matches of their high school careers at the Coliseum.
“They’ve been the heart of our team all year,” Moos said. “I’m really proud of what they did. They walk out of here being proud of who they are and what they’ve done.”
Doherty went on to obliterate Grandview 25-17, 25-14, 25-15 in the finals to win its third state title.