CAVE CREEK — It may not have been the major leap the Eagles dreamed of.
But Ironwood girls volleyball capped a year of steady improvement by taking a set off of #2 seed Cave Creeek Cactus Shadows in its first official playoff match since 2013.
On Nov. 5, #15 Ironwood (14-17) pushed the Falcons in the first set before faltering and took the third set of a 17-25, 11-25, 25-20, 25-16 5A first round playoff loss.
"It could have gone either way and I think finally the girls believed that. That has been our challenge this year — them believing in themselves. Individually, they're great. Coming together as a team is what we've been working on," Ironwood coach Lisa Lopez sai. "To finishe against a top-ranked team and for them to see we actually belonged here, I hope it's a step in the right direction for years to come."
Buoyed by a busload of Eagles fans that made them feel like they were back in Glendale, Ironwood grabbed a 15-13 lead in the first set and forced a Cactus Shadows time out.
The visitors still led 16-15 when freshman setter Sidney Parks began serving. Three aces and several difficult to trasition serves later, the home team led 24-17.
By then, the second seed had responded to Ironwood's greatly improved level of play.
"We scrimmaged them and they came in here like twice the team when we played them at first. They've got some big hitters and good blocks. And their defense is phenomenal" Cactus Shadows coach Lauren Berwick said.
The Falcons also lost senior libero Keylee Harvey to multiple knee injuries late in the season.
By the second set they had their defensive coverage figured out. And they served five more aces.
"Our whole bench is strong and they're all good servers. The hard part is tonight we had a lot of serves out of bounds. We played with new balls that were never used before. AIA sends them to you and they're lighter. You saw a lot of hits on both sides goign long," Berwick said.
Ironwood was not competitive in that set, but with their season on the line the Eagles dug deep. Seniors Nyakuer Aguek and Mya Jones combined for five kills to build a 10-6 lead.
Then it was the Omoruyi twins' turn. McKenzie had three kills and a solo block, while sister McKenna added two kills.
Taking a set in a playoff game is a milestone for Lopez's program in her fifth season.
"It was huge. A moral victory. And having the school here cheering them on shows that they are loved, not just by me," Lopez said. "It was amazing having this many fans here. It was a huge stepping-stone and I hope it continues."
The Falcons battled back and put away the match.
Berwick saod facing a strong defensive team like Ironwood will pay dividends later in the playoffs. Cactus Shadows hosts leage rival and #10 seed Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep in Thursday's semifinal.
Lopez attributed the program's breakthrough season to good health and good grades. Jones missed only a week because of an injury and was the only rotation player to do so. Lopez said no player was red carded for poor grades.
A strong junior class, led by the Omoruyi twins, defensive specialists Mallory Rich and Cristina Lopez, right side Kaylee Logan and setter Cori Vaquera gives hope for continued growth.
"It's going to be tough to fill those spots, for sure," Lopez said. "I do have some good juniors coming back that saw some court time. We definitely had a different mindset.