During their careers, the Northwest Christian volleyball juniors have made the pendulum swing, from being the top seed who suffers playoff heartbreak to the team that picks apart higher seeds once the postseason starts.
For the second straight season, the Crusaders swept through four playoff matches in two days to claim a state title without giving any opponents a glimmer of hope.
This run meant the most to senior middle blockers Zoe Dalessandri and Ashlyn Nevrla, who were around for the 3A final loss in 2016 and shocking semifinal upset in 2017. The 2016 and 2019 state finals were the only matches the Crusaders have ever played at North High in Phoenix.
"It was a little intimidating coming into this gym because the last time we were here we lost in the state finals. Ultimately it was so awesome. It's a full circle now," Nevrla said.
When a team plays like Northwest Christian did Saturday night, it can make a very good team, a #1 seed, look ordinary.
That's about the size of things as the Crusaders defended their 3A title in the same fashion they won it a year ago sweeping the field. NWC denied Valley Christian's shot at a title it last won a decade ago by stopping the Trojans, 25-15, 25-20, 25-14 on Nov. 9.
The teams played six weeks ago with NWC winning via sweep, but the match was much more competitive with the Crusaders winning 25-20, 25-20, 26-24.
"I felt really good about our matchups on our outside or our right side. They have a great block and they can press it in, but our middles were phenomenal. They did what they needed to do so (Valley Christian) didn't know where to block," Northwest Christian coach Jenna Hope said.
Northwest Christian wasn't pushed hard in its first three tournament matches and maybe that gave the Crusaders a bit of an edge. Sweeps of Show Low and Tuba City on Friday and Snowflake in the semifinals earlier Saturday were a smooth path to the final. Valley Christian had the same good fortune the first two rounds taking 3-0 wins over Payson and Page.
The Trojans' Saturday afternoon semifinal, however, went five sets and they expended great effort in edging #4 Odyssey Institute, 3-2. It took a rally from an 8-4 deficit in the fifth set for the Trojans to earn their first finals berth since 2009. Last year NCS swept Show Low, Fountain Hills, Tuba City and Arizona College Prep to bring home the trophy.
"We really did a good job, we played at a high level," Hope said. "(Setter) Molly (Kipp) ran a great offense and gave us good sets all match. We got contributions from everyone."
The attack was led by versatile junior and Oregon commit Reagan Hope, who slammed down a team and match-high 18 kills. Freshman Kierstyn Barton added eight kills and the trio of Nevrla, Dalessandri and Jadeyn Shaw collected five apiece.
Barton is the key newcomer, while Shaw proved invaluable moving from libero to outside hitter. Junior Miranna Berles moved in as the libero.
"Miranna stepped in at libero for Jaedyn did and amazing job. And Kierstyn, the freshman on the right side helped us the ton," Dalessandri said.
Late in the second set - the closest of the three - Northwest Christian landed three aces that helped finish out the set. Emma Harmeyer (four aces) and Shaw (three aces) were the leaders.
Seven of nine players who got most of the playing time for the Crusaders will return next season led by Hope, Kipp, Shaw and Berles.
It gets worse for 3A. Grand Canyon University commit MacKenzie Wise was out this season due to hip surgery but will be a senior next year.
"It was different because we did have to fill that spot but it wasn't different in that we knew exactly what to do. Our girls are very, very good at changing roles in a second. When MacKenzie was out, Jenna switched up the rotation and we worked on it. Raegan did extremely well and Jaedyn did extremely well moving from libero last year to outside this year," Nevrla said.
Valley Christian led sparingly throughout the match and never led by more than two points. Runs were scarce and the Trojans' attack was suppressed to the degree its kill leaders were Breanna Brooks with six and Cara Braun and Emma Richardson with five each.
Valley Christian coach Lindy Ramsland, expecting a baby by Dec. 3 if not sooner, spent all her timeouts in each set as the Trojans weren't able to overcome the relentlessness thrown at them in all phases by the Crusaders.
"There was a lot of expectations for us coming in this year so being able to win this senior year was amazing," Dalessandri said.
The regular season was a bit more difficult than last year, with Odyssey Institute upsetting the Crusaders to start the year.
It took a while, but Hope's team finished 2019 as dominant as it ended 2018.
"What made this team unique is that people stepped up in roles they weren't used to. They played as if they had been there all along. They never settled for being mediocre. They worked hard until they were the best at their spot," Hope said.