Lions fall in home play-in match to cap program’s 6A debut
By Steve Stockmar
West Valley Preps
PEORIA — Things were tight, then it was lopsided one way, then the other team won.
Talk about a first-round night in the 6A playoffs.
In the end, Thursday night’s five-game thriller went in favor of the Mesa Skyline Coyotes, the 6A play-in bracket’s 17-seed, who overcame the home court advantage of the 16-seed Liberty Lions to advance to the state tournament, which opens Oct. 30.
The Coyotes will snag the 16-team bracket’s No. 15 seed and open against the No. 2 seed, which will be announced during the AIA’s live bracket show Saturday, Oct. 27 beginning at 4:30 p.m.
It took a mighty effort from the East Valley Region’s Skyline.
After the two teams were locked in a super tight first three games, the match finally opened up in Game 4, won handily 25-16 by Liberty to force the decisive Game 5.
The Lions had to juggle their pivotal Game 5 lineup when 6-foot-1 sophomore middle Maranda Schneberger came down with dizzy migraine symptoms between games and wasn’t cleared to return.
Skyline had its own plans, though, and ran the table after a brief 1-0 deficit to win 15-7, including a clutch 7-2 run at the end to clinch the play-in tournament’s only five-game match of the night throughout the state.
“Volleyball’s all about momentum,” Skyline head coach Venese Hiapo said afterward. “This is the first time I’ve seen this ever in the season with these girls. They just wanted it so bad. And so it creates that stronger momentum.”
Liberty head coach Courtney Johnson said the late lineup switcheroo caught her players off guard.
“We don’t deal with change well. We just don’t deal with change,” she said. “That’s our team. We are very kind of stubborn, like ‘Oh that’s our side, that’s our winning side.’”
It took a while for both teams to figure each other out early on.
Things were so back-and-forth for awhile that, at one point, between Games 1 and 2, the two clubs went 55 straight serves with neither leading by more than two points, plus 18 ties and nine lead changes.
Then came Game 4.
The Lions led wire-to-wire and suddenly broke open the close match as Skyline struggled to keep pace. Even after the Coyotes called timeout facing a 10-point deficit, the very next serve right after the timeout resulted in an unforced error.
A kill from the middle by Liberty’s Gracie Newbern kept the run going with the Lions leading comfortably 18-8. Skyline would chip away here and there, but the game was well in hand for Liberty to force a Game 5.
“There was a lot happening in Game 4 that just kind of worked in our favor,” Johnson said.
Just as quickly, things suddenly turned for Skyline.
With points so critical in a clinching game that goes only to 15, the Coyotes got a huge dig from Kamaile Hiapo to ignite the Skyline rotation to a commanding 10-5 lead.
Afterward, Coach Hiapo admitted she didn’t tell her players anything after the Game 4 blowout with the season on the line.
“They actually did it for themselves for the first time this season,” she said. “I just backed off.”
The season drew to a close for Liberty, however, at 14-12 overall.
The Lions earned a postseason bid in their first appearance in the 6A Conference, comprised of the state’s largest schools. Johnson said the 6A girls they faced were bigger and the game’s pace was faster, but was pleased overall with her team’s 6A debut in 2018.
“It was definitely an eye-opener,” she said. “I think the girls performed to the best of their abilities. We went five with some really good teams out there, like Corona, Highland, Skyline. We were really pleased to make it (to the postseason) as a 16-seed and be able to host.”
Liberty will bid farewell to seniors Heather Wanninger, Abbie Spiek, Mikayla Shaver and Haeleigh Paulino.
6A PLAY-IN MATCH
Game 1: Skyline 25, Liberty 23
Game 2: Liberty 25, Skyline 19
Game 3: Skyline 25, Liberty 22
Game 4: Liberty 25, Skyline 16
Game 5: Skyline 15, Liberty 7