The stellar play of Phoenix Arcadia outside hitters Lauren Sayre and Ryan Sheedy and strong net play in the middle by Ally Bolden and Vania Mendez was just part of the difficulty No. 1 seed Ironwood Ridge faced Tuesday night in a 5A state quarterfinal match.
Although they won the first two sets, the Nighthawks still faced challenging odds against the unrelenting Titans.
“For them to fight for their season and go through all the things they went through, every day after school working out with these guys has been the best part of my day,” Ironwood Ridge coach Bill Lang said of his team after it lost in five sets to Arcadia.
The No. 9-seeded Titans (13-5) outlasted the Nighthawks 22-25, 21-25, 25-13, 25-20, 16-14. Arcadia will play at No. 4 Goodyear Millennium in a semifinal match Thursday night.
Ironwood Ridge’s “fight for their season,” as Lang put it, was the two-month delay of the season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Nighthawks, who finished 14-1, did not have their first formal practice until the start of October with the opener Oct. 14.
Meanwhile, Arcadia started practicing a full month before that because of the reduced COVID-19 restrictions in Maricopa County. Arcadia’s first match was Sept. 22.
“With all the things we went through, I think that the fact we’re even here playing is special; I’m really grateful that we even got this opportunity,” said senior outside hitter Alicia Cordova. “I didn’t think we’d have a season, so this is special, for sure.”
Other substantial factors affecting the Nighthawks:
— One of the best players in the state — senior outside hitter Alyssa Feltman — sat courtside with her left knee raised the entire match. Feltman, who is headed to the Arizona beach volleyball program, missed the entire season after tearing the ACL in her knee before the season.
— Senior libero Jaedyn Azares was at home in quarantine because of COVID-19 contact tracing.
— Ironwood Ridge did not play in its scheduled first-round match Saturday against Marana because the Tigers were forced to cancel due to a COVID-19 positive test, which meant the Nighthawks did not play for almost two weeks while Arcadia was coming off a 3-1 win at Gilbert on Saturday.
One of the top players in the state, @nighthawkvb outside hitter Alyssa Feltman, out all season with a left knee injury. Providing vocal support.. Bound for @ArizonaBVB. #ASThssports pic.twitter.com/Mg7EEh9D6u
“I thought we missed our libero (Azares). (Junior) Morgan (Stewart) did a good job filling in but it’s hard when you’ve played all year with a certain lineup and then have it change at the biggest time of the year,” Lang said.
“But that’s what we signed up for this year. We knew it would be a crazy year. The biggest takeaway for us is the fact we got to play. We just wish we were still playing.”
Ironwood Ridge won the first two sets against Arcadia but the Nighthawks were challenged in narrow outcomes — each set was tied at 20 before they broke through — and that provided hope for the Titans.
Arcadia also rebounded after losing its first set against Gilbert.
“We knew that we weren’t playing as clean as we could play,” Arcadia coach Jackie Bunker said. “We knew we had been making a lot of errors and we had only lost by a few points in each set, so we knew that if we could clean it up, we could battle with this team.”
Arcadia scored eight of nine points in one stretch of the third set behind the play of Sayre and Sheedy to take a 19-9 lead. Sheedy, who a month ago was on Arcadia’s junior varsity team, served an ace to cap a 25-13 win.
That forced a fourth set, which the Nighthawks experienced only three times season. They were never pushed to five sets.
“I thought as the match wore on I thought our attention to detail was not as good as it was in the beginning or as good as it has been all year,” Lang said. “Arcadia presented some trouble in the middle for us and we were struggling against that. “
Arcadia scored seven of the last nine points of the fourth game to force the fifth game.
After leading Ironwood Ridge to a 14-0 record and a #1 ranking, Senior Setter Sophia Gomez is the 2020 5A Sonoran Region Player of the Year! Sophia becomes the 12th Nighthawk since 2004 to be named POY. #IRVB2020 #BetterTogether #tradition #SetterHigh pic.twitter.com/nn59kUpTdT
The Nighthawks took a 13-11 lead in the fifth set on Cordova’s kill off a set by senior Sophia Gomez. Arcadia rallied for three straight points behind the strong net play of Bolden and Mendez in the middle to go ahead 14-13.
After Cordova tied the set at 14 with another kill, Arcadia scored the last two points to emerge victorious behind Sayre and Sheedy and setter Tatum Longnecker.
Sayre will face Feltman in the future in Pac-12 beach volleyball. She has signed a national letter of intent with Utah.
Last season, Lauren was named to the All-Region First Team as a Libero. This season, she filled in for Alyssa Feltman and was named the 2020 Region Offensive Player of the Year! pic.twitter.com/L3n9CjZBCp
“Ironwood Ridge is such a great program; it’s such a great honor just to even be battling with them because of how long they’ve been an established program,” Bunker said. “We just feel lucky to have the opportunity to win. I mean, you can see that either team could have taken this. It was so close. We’re just grateful that we got the opportunity to keep playing.”
Lang added that the Nighthawks, “represented our program, which I really appreciate.”
“They changed the culture in this program a little bit,” he said. “Their coachability, their attention to detail, their work ethic was outstanding. Like I said, they were literally the best part of my day, coming into the gym, and and they just deserve so much more.
“They deserve to play another match.”
In addition to Feltman advancing to Arizona, Ironwood Ridge middle blocker Rumur Rouille is moving on to Long Island University’s program.
Fellow seniors Cordova and outside hitter/libero Lauren Barberii consistently delivered kills against Arcadia that were set by Gomez, another senior. Gabrielle Suarez, yet another senior, was effective in the middle. Their college experience might not include volleyball.
Cordova plans to attend Texas and study business.
“This is the last volleyball game I am going to play,” Cordova said. “It’s a bittersweet end, but it’s special.
“I just think I’m going to remember playing with my best friends. This really sucks right now and it feels like a really big deal, but to me, just the fact that I got to do this with these girls is really special.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.