Steamboat Springs The Sailors players who had gathered in the stands of the Brighton High School gym Saturday afternoon sat anxiously watching as the top-rated team in the tournament, Mullen, battled with the hometown Bulldogs in a key match.
When Mullen downed Brighton in the match, the stands where the Sailors were stationed exploded with emotion. The Sailors finished second to Mullen in the tournament and had secured a state playoff berth for the first time since 1998.
"Everybody was really excited," Steamboat's Jessica Fritz said. "We knew we were in and we wouldn't have to play in a one-game tie-breaker."
If Brighton had upset the Mullen in the match, Steamboat would have tied for second. Steamboat and Brighton then would have had to play a 15-point tie-breaker to see which team would advance to the state finals at the Denver Coliseum.
Fritz said the situation was all too familiar. Last year, Steamboat tied Rifle at regionals and lost the one-game tie-breaker, just missing the state finals.
After Mullen and Brighton split the first two games of the final match of the day, the Steamboat players who gathered in the stands feared a repeat of last year's heartbreaking situation. But the Mustangs came to life in the third game of the match and defeated Brighton 15-5.
"It was great because we knew we were in," Fritz said.
Steamboat defeated Brighton and Pueblo Centennial in the round-robin tournament on Saturday. The local team's only loss came to Mullen in a hard-fought contest.
Fritz said the Sailors came out kind of tentative in the first match of the day against Brighton. The Bulldogs won the first game 15-9.
"I think we were kind of scared in the beginning," Fritz said. "We wanted to do so well and I think everybody was pretty nervous."
But the Sailors rebounded in the final two games of the match, beating Brighton 15-3 and 15-3.
Jessica Johnson led the team with 17 kills and no errors. Fritz added 13 kills and committed only two errors in the contest.
"That's incredible hitting at any level," Sailors head coach Wendy Hall said.
As a team, Steamboat had 42 kills and only five errors in one of the team's best hitting performances of the year.
Maggie McElhinney had 31 assists. Johnson was 13-for-13 serving and Fritz was 11-for-11 serving.
Johnson was 17-for-17 passing and had three blocks in the game.
Steamboat got a very brief break, about 10 minutes, before heading into its next match against one of the state's top-ranked teams Mullen.
"I think it was our toughest match of the day," Fritz said. "But we played our best volleyball and were right there with them most of the way."
Mullen won the games 15-9 and 15-13. Fritz, however, said Steamboat could have taken the match with a few breaks.
In that match, Johnson and Fritz both had 10 kills each and Katie Carter had three kills. McElhinney has 20 assists and Lauren Dargevics and Carter both had three blocks.
"It was a great experience to see a new game at this point of the season," Hall said. "This was a very good team and they had a lot of offensive weapons."
Hall felt as if Steamboat could have topped the Mustangs. But the Sailors had problems shutting down one top hitter at key points of the game. The Mustangs' Molly Law was able to rattle off three straight points at the end of the first game to help Mullen move past Steamboat.
After the loss, Steamboat returned to the court and knocked off Pueblo Centennial in a 15-6, 15-5 match to finish the tournament with a 2-1 record.
"It was a pretty sloppy match," Hall said. "Pueblo was out of it so they didn't play that hard and we had problems getting into a rhythm."
Fritz had six kills, Johnson had five and Carter finished with four. McElhinney netted 14 assists and Dargevics and Bayli Stillwell each had three blocks. McElhinney was seven-for-seven and Stillwell was 13-for-13 with two aces.
Brighton finished at 1-2 and Pueblo didn't win a match. The top seed out of the region will be Mullen. The Mustangs finished at 3-0.
The state tournament will begin at the Denver Coliseum Friday morning with pool play. The championship rounds will take place all day Saturday.
To reach John F. Russell call 871-4209 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org