Lady Aztecs in heartbreaker volleyball loss after spectacular rise to 5A-1 finals

volleyball112109Talk about Cinderella teams. This season’s Corona girls volleyball team has got to be one of the best stories to come out of Arizona girls 5A volleyball since 2001 when Mountain Pointe, a team with an 18-14 record, who barely made it into the state 5A tournament, shot up through the ranks to defeat every one of their higher ranked opponents in the 5A state tournament, including Corona in the finals, to win the 2001 5A championship.

Likewise, this 2009 Lady Aztecs team, entering the state tournament as the No. 11 seed, was repeatedly defeated by all three teams that they then turned around and conquered in the state 5A-I state championship tournament: No. 6 Mountain Pointe, No. 3 Desert Vista and then No. 2 Gilbert.

Corona, like Cinderella, made it to the dance but the Lady Aztecs lost something along the way: their spunk, their focus and their heart. Corona’s Cinderella’s story ended when it was swept by Xavier in the Arizona State 5A-I Championship match, Nov. 17, in Brophy’s gym, 9-25, 12-25 and 15-25.

But wait, before you start feeing sorry for Corona, think about this. No other volleyball team had ever made it to the finals when entering the state tournament as the No. 11 seed. The Lady Aztecs won three five game matches in a row against much higher seeds to make it to the state 5A-I finals. And they did it against teams that they had lost every match to and almost every game to in the regular season.

What happened so that the Lady Aztecs, the No. 11 seed, was able to turn their season around, win matches against higher seeded opponents and make it to the state 5A-I finals?

“I think because we were the 11th seed going into the tournament, we didn’t have as much pressure as the higher seeded teams did,” said senior defensive specialist Sydnie LeMieux, averaging close to 2 digs a game and serving over 30 aces. “It kept us a little more relaxed and then our amazing fans kept the games fun and exciting. They pushed us to play our best.”

The Lady Aztecs first faced off against archrival Mountain Pointe on Nov. 10 defeating the Pride on their own home court in five hard-fought games, 25-20, 25-20, 23-25,12-25, 15-8.

The Lady Aztecs next wore down Desert Vista in five games to win their quarterfinal match against the No. 3 Thunder 25-21, 21-25, 24-26, 25-17, 15-8. Alexa Moser, a 5’10” sophomore led the team with 16 kills. Cassie Ronda followed with 12 kills, Bethany Jorgensen contributed 13 kills and12 digs. Setter Cassie Fish had 48 assists and 22 digs while sophomore libero Haley Kesteloot contributed 27 digs to the win.

Gilbert probably thought they had Corona’s number after easily defeating the Lady Aztecs three times in the regular season including a 0-3 drumming Oct. 29 in the recently realigned Central region match.

“We were feeling more confident after having won against Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista, because we learned in those matches that we are able to win in any type of scenario, whether we’re down 10 points or 2 games,” stated senior opposite hitter Cassie Ronda. “We kept reminding each other that, as the lower seed, we had nothing to lose, so we didn’t hold back during the match.”

What was Corona’s X-factor that propelled them past Mountain Pointe, Desert Vista and Gilbert to reach the Lady Aztecs first state championship game appearance in three years?

“The X-factor was everybody working together and stepping up to beat really tough teams,” said Bethany Jorgensen, Corona’s remarkable outside hitter averaging close to 3.5 kills a game. “Our defense was dominating and our offense had been unstoppable.”

“Something else that helped us win was our fan support. It was been amazing. This is the biggest turnout we have ever had for volleyball since I’ve been playing at Corona and it really pumped everyone up!”

Corona fought a difficult five-game battle but persevered to defeat Gilbert 25-22, 19-25, 25-21, 21-25 15-12 and advance to the finals against Xavier.

“I was excited when we beat MP, in shock when we beat DV, and now, after Gilbert, I’m thinking someone should pinch me and wake me up,” said Katherine Gatz, senior middle blocker, averaging close to two kills a game during the regular season.

Corona started off the first game against Gilbert with five unanswered points forcing Gilbert coach Joe Hess to call a time out in an attempt to get his team back into the game.

Jorgensen, determined to not give up that first game, scored four kills after Hess’s timeout to lead the Aztecs to victory at 25-22.

In Game 2, Gilbert got out to an early lead and maintained the momentum throughout to win 26-16.

Game 3 was a battle the entire way with neither team ever leading by more than four points. Jorgensen, Corona’s clutch player, again stepped up to help the Lady Aztec win 25-21.

“Coach Maxfield said as long as we kept it close we would win,” said Gatz. “So in every game we did our best to stay within 5 points and always worked to side out quickly and recover from our mistakes fast to win in the end!”

Game 4 against Gilbert was close. Gilbert fought, like the Tigers they are, to keep their playoff hopes alive defeating the Lady Aztecs 25-21.

Corona had made some adjustments after losing to Gilbert earlier in the season that were paying off in this semi-final showdown including moving powerful outside hitter Cassie Ronda to the right side.

“Moving Cassie really shut down Gilbert’s outside hitters,” said Jorgensen. “That move helped funnel the ball to libero Haley Kesteloot and we could then run our offense more efficiently.”

Kesteloot, recently touted as one of the super sophomore volleyball players in Arizona by the East Valley Tribune, averaged close to 3 digs a game and served over 45 aces in the regular season.

But what adjustments did the Lady Aztecs make to win that deciding Game 5 with a 15-12 advantage?

“We, of course, talked about shutting down their outsides, and not letting them go on big scoring runs,” said Corona’s exceptional sophomore setter, Cassie Fish, averaging over 8 assists a game and tallying 60 service aces in the regular season.

“We passed way better during that last game and we figured out how to find holes in their blocks and shut down their big hitters” stated Haley Kesteloot

Defeating Gilbert propelled the Aztecs into the state 5A-I finals for the first time since 2006 when they lost to the Gilbert Tigers 24-26, 25-20, 26-24, 25-22. How did it feel to finally beat Gilbert this season?

“I was so happy, I didn’t know how to react – I just started crying,” said senior Cassie Ronda, who had over 250 kills, over 26 service aces and over 190 digs in the regular season. “I think some of the Gilbert players were confused at seeing so many of the winners in tears. Our fans, who have been AMAZING this season, were making so much noise, and I just thought to myself: We earned that match.”

Whatever the reason, the Lady Aztecs were on an exhilarating ride heading into the final championship match, against No. 1 Xavier who had handily beaten No. 4 Hamilton Nov. 14 in three games 25-20, 25-11, 26-24.

Corona was attempting to win its first girls volleyball state championship since 1991. The Aztecs were in the state finals for the eighth time, the first one coming in 1989 and the sixth was when they lost in 2006 to Xavier 22-25, 25-21, 25-12.

Xavier, was the dominant team winning points in bunches and deserved the championship trophy. Xavier also set a new state record by winning all five possible 5A-I state championships in one season. The Gators had already won the badminton, golf, swimming and cross country 2009 state 5A-I championship fall titles.


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