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After watching leads evaporate late and dropping the first two sets to visiting Brandon Valley in Thursday night’s Class AA SoDak 16 contest, defending state volleyball champion Rapid City Stevens's chances to defend that crown in next week’s state tournament appeared slim to none.

Clearly the time had come to up the caliber of play or hang up the uniforms until next year. The Raiders responded with the necessary play-like-a-champion mentality and stormed back to win the next three sets en route to a 24-26, 22-25, 29-27, 25-19, 15-11 victory over the Lynx at Carold Heier Gymnasium.

It was not a second too soon as the third set seemed to be following the earlier scripts when a 22-14 Raider lead quickly evaporated and Brandon Valley drew even at 24-all. Tied at 25, 26, and 27 followed before senior Sammi Sundby served an ace to close out the set.

Back in the match, the Raiders took control in the fourth set, finally able to put the clamps on Lynx junior Brooklyn Grage who had riddled the Raider defense with big hits in the earlier sets.

“We adjusted on 18 (Grage). We pulled back on our defense so that we had three back rather than keeping one up,” Raiders coach Kylie Voorhees said. “We changed from a rotation defense to a perimeter defense on her, and also tried to delay our block a little bit with her as much as we could. She had kept going over us and we did a much better job on her in the last three sets.”

Clearly so as Grage had but five kills in the final two sets.

The Raiders number 18 was a force throughout as well as Kyah Watson (a game high 20 kills in the match), had six kills in the fourth set and added three aces in a six-point run to allow the Raiders to stretch an 8-6 lead to a 17-9 advantage.

“Going into the third set, we were determined not to give up and continue to play our hardest,” said Watson who on Wednesday signed a letter-of-intent to play basketball for the University of South Dakota. “We knew we had to be confident and make smart choices.”

The fifth set reflected the even nature of play through the match with the two teams knotted at 6-all. Watson was once again instrumental with two kills, a block and threw in a couple of digs for good measure.

“Kyah is all over the board,” Voorhees said. “She is our go-to and comes through for us in key times. She had some key serves in set three and had six to eight points for us in a row and really pulled us head at critical times.”

A four-point run keyed by a Watson kill, a net violation by the Lynx and a spike by Raider middle-hitter Jayda McNabb put the Raiders up 10-6, though Brandon Valley bounced back with a four-point run to square the match at 10-apiece and went one up at 11-10 on a dink winner.

A couple of ball handing errors off McNabb spikes set up a Bailey Sobczak show down the stretch as the Raider sophomore knocked down three kills to close out the match.

“Honestly, it had all to do with the sets, Julia (setter Julia Lee) made great sets and I just had to put them away. And it wasn’t just the last three points that mattered, it was the teamwork we showed in the last three sets,” said Sobczak who had 17 kills in the match, mostly working the left outside hitter position and beating the block with cross-court blasts. “I became very emotional when the last one closed out the match. I’m a very emotional person and to share it with my teammates like that was awesome.”

Sundby, also a member of last year’s state championship team, relished the win, and how it came about as well.

“For sure, especially after the two first sets,” Sundby said. “It feels super good to come back and win. I think we just got all of our jitters out after the first two sets and figured out all the spots to hit and were able to put it down where it needed to be.”

If a win is all the sweeter because of surmounting adversity, the Raiders had that element too, said Voorhees.

“We had a different lineup tonight,” she said. “We had a girl who went down in practice on Tuesday (senior Sydney Beasley) and, unfortunately, the first two sets were our warmup sets. We had to find our groove with the six or eight that were out there, and we did that in sets one and two. Sometimes in these matches, you have to be a little bit patient and be willing to do some things in sets one and two that will benefit you in the long run.”

Brandon Valley coach Marette Grage acknowledged that her coaching counterpart had much to do with the Raiders comeback from the two-set deficit.

“They stepped up their defense and they started to hit the ball a little bit harder. And they were taking advantage of getting us out of our system,” Grage said. “They were going to our setters more and placing the ball well. And a couple of points just didn’t go our way and that was enough to win the final set.”

In addition to Watson’s 20 kills and 17 by Sobczak, McNabb had 10 kills, while Sundby chipped in with eight winners. Senior Laura Petik, a starter along with Watson on last year’s championship team, had 29 digs from her libero position and junior setter Julia Lee had 42 assists.

With the win, Stevens advances to next Thursday’s first round play in the Class AA State tournament at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. The Raiders, the No. 7 seed, will face No. 2 seed Sioux Falls O’Gorman (TBD).

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