With the score knotted at 12-all in the 15-point, fifth and deciding set of Tuesday night’s Class A SoDak 16 state qualifying match between Rapid City Christian and St. Thomas More, Christian coach Jessica Cantrell called a timeout.
A parley perhaps to discuss strategy, an X’s and O’s kind of talk?
Nope. Perhaps something more important.
“I told them that they would not be shaken and would not be overcome,” Cantrell said. “They are warriors, are strong women, and are skilled volleyball players and they just needed to go out and play the game like they can.”
Message taken to heart as the Lady Comets responded by winning three of the final four points, including a double block on the final point, to close out the Cavaliers 22-25, 29-27, 16-25, 25-22, 15-13, thereby earning Rapid City Christian the school’s first state tournament appearance since 1998, and the first-ever trip to the Class A state tournament.
The Tuesday night contest at Central High School Howard Naasz Gymnasium was the fifth meeting between the two teams this season with St. Thomas More having won three of the four contests.
And the Cavaliers appeared on the way to a fourth after winning a tightly contested first set 25-22 behind impressive play at the net by Alex Kandolin and Ciara Benson, who each contributed four on their 14 match kills in the set.
The Lady Comets bounced back to take a back-and forth second set in which the two teams were never separated by more than two points throughout, fighting off a set point and then closing out the set 29-27 when a Abby Pierce tapped a short service return over the net.
Much of the Lady Comets' success in the set was keyed by excellent blocking as Olivia Kieffer (a game high six blocks in the match), Riley Freeland (five), and middle hitter Kayla Clewley dominated the net making it difficult for Cavalier hitters to find open space.
“We really worked on our blocking this week,” Clewley said. “We’ve played them a lot and learned from that, and we also watched film and studied how they would hit, so that we could try and setup to counter that.”[
After a St. Thomas More relatively easy third set win keyed by the hitting of Haleight Timmer (17 kills in the match), momentum appeared to have taken up permanent residence on the Cavalier bench. However, the Rapid City Christian ladies were having none of it, once more rallying back in the fourth set, breaking a 21-all tie behind two of the game-high 24 kills by Kieffer, just an 8th-grader.
“The passes were great and our setter did a great job of giving me good opportunities,” Kieffer said. “And we’ve learned this season that we are capable of bouncing back, so we kept playing hard and here we are going to a state tournament.”
Though Rapid City Christian (25-12) never trailed in the deciding set, the lead was never more than two, and tied at 10-all and 12-all, before the double block that closed out the match sending the Lady Comets to the Class A State Tournament in Sioux Falls (November 15-17 at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center).
In a tension-packed night that had fans cheering on virtually every point, the biggest roar of the night came at the 10-all point in the final set as the Lady Comets' Tori Altstiel kept the point alive by making a back row desperation back row return while on the floor on her back.
“I saw it. I just thought I have to get this ball over,” Altstiel said. “And so I went for it and thank God it went over. A huge part of volleyball is your mental game, and I think that carried us at times. And to win this match and go to state, this is so special that I can’t even describe the feeling”.
Perhaps the person least surprised with the the Lady Comets, 12th seeded in Class A, upset win over the 5th seeded Cavaliers was their head coach.
“I really did,” Cantrell said when asked if she saw her team as a state tournament qualifying team early in the year. “I’ve believed in them right from the beginning. We have a lot of skill on our team. We are a young team that will be graduating only two seniors, but I knew that with our skill and ability that we would develop and peak at the right time.”
Though obviously disappointed, Cavalier coach Scott Benson didn’t pull any punches in assessing his team's loss (31-6).
“You have to give it to them. They wanted it more tonight,” Benson said. “They were more aggressive and played harder than we did, and they are the team that deserved to win tonight. It’s tough to lose a game like this after coming this far, but Rapid City Christian earned the trip to the state tournament.”