In the span of three days, the Ironwood Ridge High School volleyball team experienced the depths and heights of its sport.
On Thursday, coach Bill Lang's Nighthawks pulled off a come-from-behind, five-set win at home over eighth-seeded Glendale O'Connor in the 5A-II state quarterfinals. Scores were 18-25, 25-20, 23-25, 29-27 and 15-11.
Then, on Saturday, with a two-game lead, and one point away from a berth in the state championship match, the Nighthawks watch fifth-seeded Scottsdale Horizon climb all the way back to win, 26-28, 19-25, 26-24, 25-21 and 19-17.
It's a result that's left Nighthawk players, and in particular the team's seniors, a little numb.
"I just saw our captain, Jessica Hall, down the hall today," Lang said Tuesday morning. "They're still kind of in shock, they're not talking about it."
Things looked so good for the Nighthawks, one point away from a title berth.
"You could look over at Horizon's side, and you could see they accepted their season was over," and they were prepared to play it out, Lang said.
Yet, "when that happened for them, they actually relaxed, and once things started rolling for them, the momentum switched," Lang said. At one point Saturday, the Nighthawks watched a Horizon serve hit the net, "and just roll over on our side, untouched, unreturnable. It was one of those freak things." On another play, a Nighthawk was two feet out of position. Little things mounted.
Ironwood Ridge was tenacious. It lost the fourth game after battling to a 20-20 tie. It took a 4-0 lead in the deciding game before Horizon tied it up. "It came down to which team was going to outlast the other one," he said. Two errors ended the match.
Highs and lows were a topic in the locker room Saturday. "The great thing about athletics, particularly high school athletics, is you get that opportunity to feel that exhilaration," Lang said. "At the same time, when you've invested long enough in a team, a season, a program, you get that opportunity to feel the failure, the defeat."
He's hoping for perspective, so his team is able to "realize some of the things we were able to accomplish this season."
Ironwood Ridge finished 38-10 overall, and won the regional championship. It has been to the state semifinals three years in a row. It's lost to one Tucson team in the last three seasons.
"We're proud of that, we're proud of the third straight region championship. We haven't lost a state playoff game at home. We did a lot of things other programs would be really proud of. Now, it's trying to get that final win.
"I feel bad for the seniors right now," said Lang, who's been Ironwood's coach since the school took the floor. "Coaches don't have senior years."
Those seniors include outside hitter Jessica Hall and middle blocker Briana Hughes, both of whom started in three state semifinal matches. The others are setter Autumn Sanford, outside hitter Taylor Stender, defensive specialist Sarah Peters, senior middle blocker Emily Crawford, and Amber Sanford, who hurt her knee this season.
"They're a great group," Lang said. Ironwood Ridge lost plenty of talent from a year ago, and these seniors "came in knowing people were saying we were down. They had a little chip on their shoulder, and did a great job."
Michaela Christiaansen, the Southern player of the year, returns next season. She's joined by veterans Elle Snyed and Morgan Eaton. The Ironwood Ridge junior varsity was 15-2.
Canyon Del Oro lost its quarterfinal match with Sunnyslope, 3-0. Scores were 25-14, 25-16 and 25-14.
IR's Michaela Christiaansen tops regional volleyball team
Ironwood Ridge outside hitter Michaela Christiaansen is player of the year in the 5A Southern Region.
Christiaansen, a junior, was joined on the regional first team by teammates Briana Hughes, a senior middle blocker, and setter Autumn Stanford, also a senior.
Second-team regional players include Mountain View sophomore setter Kayla Daris and Irnowood Ridge senior outside hitter Jessica Hall.
Earning honorable mention were Nighthawks Morgan Eaton and Elle Sneyd, and Mountain View's Annie Turcotte.