New West Valley Region volleyrivals Estrella Foothills and Cactus met for a third time in a 4A volleyball quarterfinal Tuesday night in Goodyear.
Once again #6 Cactus played #3 Estrella Foothills a bit tougher, tying the match by winning the second set and playing to a 15-15 tie in the third set. But the Wolves again found a finishing kick, closing out the third and fourth sets of a 25-14, 21-25, 25-16, 25-20 playoff win to advance.
“Every time we’ve played Cactus, they’ve always upped their game. They were a lot more aggressive at the net. And I think they were hitting more at our seams, really making us move. They were definitely more strategic this time and they put up a really good fight,” Estrella Foothills senior setter Raegan Moran said.
With that Estrella Foothills (30-1) and its 11 seniors head on the road for a semifinal again tonight, at #2 ALA-Gilbert North (35-8). The Wolves want to erase memories of last year's epic semifinal loss at Tucson Canyon del Oro, which went to the finals after winning the fourth set 33-31.
Most of these seniors saw the program make its first state final as freshmen in 2019, and LaLa Florance-Littles, Alyssa Gonzales and Sage Chittester were on the roster that night against Greenway. The large group is determined to make it back.
"Some of them have played together six years, including middle school. They're very comfortable with each other. They know each other so much that they want to play for each other," Estrella Foothills coach Jennifer Gonzales said. "We definitely have a strong bench and we preach that bench players are just as important as floor players. We've never been a one- or two-player show. We're very driven because we have 11 seniors and it's their last shot at it. They definitely have an eye on the prize."
It was the last chance for three Cactus four-year starters and they played like it. Middle blocker Rylea Simonich (16 kills) and outside hitter Amanda Lauer (15 kills) were the top two attackers in the match, while setter Katie Beehler led all players with 30 assists.
Thee trio led the visitors back following a rough first set, as Cactus (31-8) went up 6-0 in the second set, then fell down 15-12 before rallying to tie the match. Simonich ended the set with a kill, and had four kills, a block and an ace in the set.
First-year head coach Jana Henige coached the Cobras JV for years. And she coached Beehler, Lauer and Simonich in club volleyball.
“When I took the job, and really my daughter too, one of our biggest goals was for the seniors to have the best season, and to give them all the opportunities to help with that,” Henige said. “Seeing how much they enjoyed the season literally is everything. And they are just an amazing group of girls. You couldn’t ask for a better group.”
Gonzales said she was impressed with the Cobras' block in the third meeting.
Her own middle blocker, the 6-3 Goodere, took over the third set once it was tied at 15. She finished with two kills and two aces.
"She has developed so much in her blocking and hitting, and her communication skills. She's one of those quiet players who has developed quite well in her one back row rotation," Gonzales said.
Depth could win the Wolves their first state title. Twelve players were in at least three sets for Estrella Foothills.
Eight of them were seniors, but Goodere led all players with 14 kills and fellow junior Emma Sanchez and freshman Sadie Snyder added four kills apiece.
It's part of continuing a tradition these seniors picked up from the 2019 team.
“We all looked up to our seniors. When I was a freshman, Nayeli Mancilla was a very big role model for me. I always looked up to her. Something with this program is we all jell. There’s no drama with the team,” Moran said. “I think that’s very important with a team. If you don’t jell properly, it’s not going to work out.”
Henige said she knew the Cobras were the underdog coming in. Early in the fourth set sophomore middle blocker Sapphire Solano had three straight blocks to give the Cobras a 5-4 lead.
Sophomore Delaney Heady served two aces. While junior Rylan Gompf had 15 digs and junior Penina Vito added 10 digs.
“I love the program. They bought into what we wanted to bring and the changes that we made and the traditions we kept,” Henige said.
It's similar at Estrella Foothills, where this closely-knit group wants to keep playing together, at least until Saturday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“We’re all friends, love each other and work really well together,” Sanchez said.