Avondale — After a crushing 3-0 loss to the top-ranked Millennium Tigers in the 5A volleyball quarterfinals for the No. 8 Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks, their 2022 season has officially come to a close. As Millennium was able to secure the third and final set, emotions started to emerge as many saw their high school career come to a close. After congratulating Millennium on the win, the Nighthawks hugged and embraced each other as the bittersweet moment brought the girls to tears.
For coach Bill Lang, it never gets easier to say goodbye to the graduating seniors, but he says something about this group is different and it’s going to be tough seeing them leave.
“We talked about it in the huddle, I told them I would trade this fifth-place finish in with this group for any state championship trophy,” Lang said. “I’ve been around for a long time, and some of these kids I’ve known since they were very, very little.”
Lang knew it would be a fight until the finish if they were going to take down the top-ranked Tigers, and the Nighthawks never stopped fighting until the final set point was called. On the court, the Nighthawks looked like a completely different team from the start of the season, where Ironwood Ridge was struggling to find an identity.
“We put together a lot of work,” Lang said. “We looked at ourselves in the mirror and we realized what we needed to do. From a staff, we figured out different things about how we wanted to run our offense, and we kind of changed that, as well as how we wanted to adjust defense. But most importantly, I think we started to slowly get the buy-in from everybody.”
While their efforts in coming together this season had gotten them into the postseason, it’s arguable the Nighthawks record of 20-18 hurt them going into the playoffs. Despite playing an incredibly challenging schedule to prepare them for battle, it ultimately resulted in the Nighthawks getting the eighth seed in the bracket.
“We go into the state tournament always battle-tested,” Lang said. “We’re 20-18, they’re 36-4, so I don’t know with girls what that fine balance is between going in tested knowing we’ve been here done this, or going in knowing we can win because we’ve won all of our matches we’re gonna win this match, and that was something we were working through.”
Regardless of who was standing on the other side of the net, it wouldn’t change the Nighthawks approach as they looked to play their game.
Starting off the first set, Ironwood Ridge was able to keep things close with Millennium early, but it didn’t take long for the Tigers to start clawing their way to the lead. After being tied at 5, Millennium was able to jump out to an 11-6 lead, forcing Ironwood Ridge to call a timeout.
Unfortunately the timeout did little to stop the momentum behind the Tigers, who were able to work their way to a 20-12 lead and force Ironwood Ridge to use its second timeout.
While the Nighthawks attempted to make a comeback, set one ultimately went to Millennium, 25-14.
Ironwood Ridge attempted to take back the momentum to start the second set, opening things up with an ace from senior Jasmine Lord. Millennium stayed neck and neck with Ironwood Ridge, waiting for the opportunity to strike and take the lead. After a net serve gave Millennium a 7-6 lead, a block followed up by a kill set off what would be a defensive hot-streak for the Tigers.
Holding a 13-9 lead, four hits called against Millennium gave a point to Ironwood Ridge, kick starting the next rally. A kill from senior Katherine Cherrington and an ace from junior Taylor DeSpain helped get the Nighthawks back on track, but Millennium was able to answer right back. Pushing the lead out to 18-13, Ironwood Ridge called its first timeout of the set.
Coming back out, Cherrington was able to find the floor before putting down back-to-back aces to bring the Nighthawks within two.
However, Millennium once again snatched back the momentum, dialing up their attack and jumping out to a 22-16 lead. Calling their second timeout in the set, the Nighthawks gathered on the side and attempted to regroup.
There seemed to be hope for the Nighthawks coming back out when a blocking error by Millennium resulted in a point, but the Tigers came back to snag the final three points and take set two 25-17.
Knowing the future of their season came down to this set, the Nighthawks can truly say they left it all on the court in set three as they attempted to fight. Despite Millennium jumping out to an early lead, Ironwood Ridge stayed mentally dialed in, staying right on the heels of the Tigers.
Taking an 11-10 lead on a kill from senior Melanie Merrill, the Nighthawk bench went wild, erupting with cheers as they jumped up and down. Millennium wasn’t giving up so easily, though, and kept fighting to keep things tied.
After Ironwood Ridge was able to take a 15-13 lead in set three, Millennium called its first timeout of the night before letting things get too carried away.
“We got them caught in a rotation, and that’s what we need,” Lang said. “That’s one of the things that we have a hard time with as a program.”
Ironwood Ridge continued working to a 17-14 lead, but it was gone in the blink of an eye. Things were quickly knotted up at 18, but the momentum had shifted behind the Tigers once again. Falling behind to the Tigers 20-18, Lang called a timeout
Unfortunately, the Tigers had found their stride, and they were able to run away to a 25-19 victory in set three, sweeping the Nighthawks.
While it’s bittersweet for the season to come to a close, Lang knows he’ll still have the opportunity to coach many of them in beach volleyball this spring. He also is looking forward to transitioning from being their coach to being more of a mentor and friend, and is looking forward to the days they come back to visit him at practice.
“Now it’s no longer about volleyball with them, it’s about relationships,” Lang said. “The thing I always say is, ‘Tell me how successful the season is? See me in 20 years and I’ll tell you.’ We had a 20-year reunion, and we had alumni from my first varsity team. That team was 13-11 and didn’t get to state, but the fact they all came back to say hi to their coach, I’d say that’s a pretty successful season.”
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @LittWithBritt