STATE TOURNAMENT - DAY 2
Perhaps the most impressive part of Hanford's performance at the 3A state volleyball tournament was how easy the Falcons made it all look, sweeping past their final three opponents and only dropping one game in four matches.
Strike that. The most impressive part is the big gold-ball trophy they got to take home.
The Falcons claimed their first ever state title in striking fashion Saturday night, sweeping past top-ranked Auburn Riverside 25-16, 25-22, 25-15 to wrap up play at Toyota Center.
"We weren't expecting what we got, but we definitely deserved it," said senior middle Brittini Butler, whose nine kills and three blocks were huge as the Ravens stacked the middle against standout Brittany Quick. "We worked out butts off today."
"It's awesome," said outside hitter Janelle King. "It hasn't quite sunk in yet, but what a great way to end my senior season."
Quick, who simply dominated the tournament, called it surreal.
"It's kind of like things fell into place for us," she said after capping a terrific two days with 17 kills, three blocks and 11 digs.
Hanford almost made it seem that easy, sweeping past Shorecrest and Bishop Blanchet to reach the championship.
It's the first state trophy for the Falcons in 20 years, topping runner-up finishes in 1978 and '87. But after being regulars at state in the '70s and '80s, Hanford went cold for nearly two decades, only twice reaching state and neither time winning a match.
Last year, the Falcons came in with high expectations and went home after two matches.
"Last year, we definitely did not get what we wanted," said junior outside hitter Stacey Stanhope. "This year, we had the mentality we're taking something home."
Butler had a crucial series of plays in the first game to get Hanford the lead. Her kill got the sideout and pulled the Falcons within 8-7. She then served up an ace for a tie, and Quick put them ahead for good.
Hanford took control with a four-point run in the second game to lead 20-16. The Falcons finished the match with a kill and a block by Butler, a "just fell in" from by setter Kristin Barott and then a Auburn Riverside ball into the net.
Key to the sweep was Hanford's defense, which frustrated the Ravens into hitting errors after popping up near-certain kills.
"We have to rely on defense," said King, who is particularly adept digging the ball at the net, "and when we're passing everything up, it feels upstoppable."
"They defended everything that second and third game," A-R coach Chris Leverenz said. "They just played great defense."
King finished with nine digs, and Barott had 29 assists, three blocks and two aces to cap a standout tourney.
Hanford's semifinal sweep of second-ranked Bishop Blanchet came against a team that returned eight seniors from last year's championship team.
The Falcons led nearly all of the first two games but trailed 19-13 in the third before scoring nine straight points and then slamming the door.
"That's been a little weakness with us this season," Quick said of a tendency to lighten up after going up 2-0. "That third game, our main focus was 'Not four. Not four. Not four.' "
Quick was marvelous with 20 kills and five blocks, taking advantage with Blanchet's weakness against dominant middles (Sumner's Jocelyn Levig had 26 kills as the Spartans pushed the Braves to five games in their opener).
She pointed to the philosophy of Hanford's coach, Hugh Harris, and gave him credit for the team's ability to shake off the pressure of state.
"Even during timeouts," Quick said, "coach says you have to have a smile on your face and have fun."
They're smiling now.
Hanford simply could not be beat.
Only hours after sweeping defending Class 3A champion Bishop Blanchet in the semifinals, Hanford swept top-ranked Auburn Riverside 25-16, 25-22, 25-15 at the Toyota Center for the Falcons' first state volleyball championship.
"This is the greatest day of my life," said Hanford coach Hugh Harris.
Behind 6-foot-2 middle blocker Brittany Quick, who had 17 kills, 3 blocks and 11 digs in the title game, Hanford cruised through four tournament matches. The Falcons lost only one game, to Mount Si in the first round.
In the title game against Auburn Riverside, the Falcons' size and strength were the difference.
"They're very physical, and I think we let that intimidate us," said Ravens coach Chris Leverenz.
If Auburn Riverside was the favorite, Hanford was anything but.
The sixth-ranked Falcons (28-5) didn't even win their league, finishing second in the 3A division of the Columbia Basin Conference to Kamiakin, a team that beat Hanford five times this season.
A boisterous home crowd helped the local team.
Riverside's second-place finish is the 12-year-old school's best.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Leverenz said. "It's the best team I've ever had. They played hard all year."
The Ravens (34-4) were led by junior Dominika Kristinikova, a Slovakian exchange student in her first year with the team.
"I'm not sad being second best in state. I think it's awesome," said Kristinikova, who had a team-high 11 assists and 13 digs.
Hanford's best finish in eight previous appearances was second, in 1987 and 1978. The Falcons finished fourth in 1980. Hanford became the first team in Columbia Basin Conference history to win the Class 3A title, dating to 1977.
On Saturday, there was no doubt who was tops.
"They're a very good team. They deserve it," Leverenz said.
Brooke Bray, a sophomore, had seven kills and eight blocks in the title game for Riverside. Candice Buchanan had 12 digs and Stazi Edmonds added 10 for the Ravens.
Senior setter Kristin Barott had 29 assists and three blocks for Hanford.
Auburn Riverside came into the tournament ranked No. 1 in the state coaches poll after being ranked behind Bishop Blanchet and Kamiakin most of the season. The Ravens graduate seven seniors.
It's only the second time in seven years that a non-Metro League team has won the Class 3A title. The only other team to win in that span was Selah in 2005. Selah is now a 2A school and won the state championship in that tournament Friday night.
STATE TOURNAMENT - DAY 1
The Kamiakin volleyball team was all business Friday, but it was hardly business as usual.
The Braves reached the semifinals of a state tournament for the first time in school history, sweeping away their first two opponents in the 3A bracket at Toyota Center.
"We won districts, we won regionals, and we know what we can do," Braves junior outside hitter Marcy Hjellum said matter-of-factly.
Hanford, on the other hand, is in the midst of a joyride. After going 0-2 last year as one of the tournament favorites, the Falcons are more relaxed this time around. As a result, they looked completely at ease dispatching their first two opponents.
"It's amazing, it's awesome, it's so exciting," said senior middle blocker Brittany Quick, whose performance Friday also can be described as amazing, awesome and so exciting.
Quick dominated the morning match, racking up 24 kills and six blocks in Hanford's 27-25, 25-13, 23-25, 25-19 win over Mount Si. She finished with 12 kills and four blocks in a 25-13, 25-14, 25-19 sweep of Shorecrest.
"They double and triple her, and she still finds a way," said Falcons coach Hugh Harris.
Hanford faces defending champion Bishop Blanchet in today's semifinals at 3:30 p.m. The Braves from Seattle defeated Camas 25-13, 25-20, 25-20, led by 16 kills and three aces from Bridget Logan.
Kamiakin, which swept by Kennedy 25-14, 25-21, 25-23, will take on Auburn Riverside, also at 3:30. The Ravens, whom Kamiakin defeated at the Crossover Classic in Spokane earlier this season, advanced to the semifinal with a 25-17, 25-21, 25-23 win over Mercer Island. Brooke Bray led A-R with 14 kills and four blocks.
Kamiakin's entire volleyball program is green when it comes to state, having qualified just three previous times and placing once -- eighth in 2003. But the Braves are playing like tested postseason veterans, spreading the sets among Hjellum, Emily Jepsen and Elise Jepsen.
Emily Jepsen's 18 kills led Kamiakin against Kennedy, and Hjellum added 14 kills and seven digs. Earlier, the Braves rolled over Auburn Mountain-view 25-14, 25-20, 25-11.
"It's awesome because we're playing as hard as we can," Emily Jepsen said, "and we're going to get as far as we can."
In the morning match, the "X" factor was soft-serving Bonnie Gregory, who had 22 service points and four aces. She put together runs in each game -- 10, 5 and 7 points -- to open up close games.
"Basically, it's just a really nice, short serve," said coach Mary Opitz, who guided the Braves to their first state appearance in 1987, her second year. "She's done it all season, but we haven't had a run of points on it like that. At state, they think hard and fast."
Hanford is playing in the state semifinals for the first time since finishing second in 1987. The Falcons' opening round win was also their first state win in 20 years -- and a big relief.
"We're real excited just to win," setter Kristin Barott said after the match, adding that last year was a learning experience. "Now we're going all the way. That's our goal."
A goal within reach provided the Falcons play with the same grace they showed Friday.
Along with Quick dominating in the middle, Barott showed a deft touch spreading the ball to outsides Janelle King and Stacey Stanhope and middle Brittini Butler, as well as, picking her spots to dump in a kill.
"She has worked so hard to improve," Quick said of Barott, her teammate since the eighth grade. "She's awesome with those dumps; they're right on the net."
If both Kamiakin and Hanford stay right on their game, then Harris might get the parting wish he expressed as he was heading out the door Friday: "Hopefully, we can make it an all Tri-City final."
STATE TOURNAEMENT NOTES - RENE FERRAN OF THE TRI-CITY HERALD
Kevin Anthony and I walked out of Toyota Center around midnight after filing our stories following Saturday's championship matches at the state volleyball tournament, and it was time to scrounge for food.
We drove over to Shari's, where we ran into the Hanford victory party.
The Falcons dominated the 3A state tournament, dropping only one game in four matches (in the first round to Mount Si), pounding defending champion Bishop Blanchet in the semifinals and routing Auburn Riverside in the final for their first-ever state title.
These were not the same Falcons that I'd seen during the regular season and district tournament. The offensive balance that had been seen only in spurts during their matches against Kamiakin was in full display at state.
In particular, senior outside hitter Janelle King came up big against Mount Si (8 kills, 10 digs), Shorecrest (8 kills) and in the final against A-R (7 kills, 9 digs). She was someone who I don't remember doing much in any of the three matches I saw the Falcons play against Kamiakin.
As I congratulated the Hanford players on their title, I joked with them that the only thing that would have made their championship sweeter would have been finally beating Kamiakin -- as it turns out, the only team to beat the Falcons all year. Several of them agreed, but they all took delight in that they took first and Kamiakin placed sixth.
And why did the Braves finish sixth? I have to put a lot of the blame on a curious coaching decision to go with a modified 6-2 rotation, having junior Shelby Swanson play right-side hitter in the front row when senior Sarah McLean came in to set during those rotations.
Now, I say this not because I think Shelby is not a good player. I think Shelby is one of the three best setters I saw this season -- I put her on par with Hanford's Kristin Barott and River View's Lisa Carlyle.
But Shelby is not a hitter -- a point that was painfully obvious during both of Kamiakin's losses Saturday. Granted, I caught only parts of both matches as I covered the 4A semifinals and finals, but I saw enough. Swanson took a full swing at one, maybe two, balls the whole night -- everything else was a tip or a push. And both Blanchet and A-R quickly figured this out and exploited it. If you only have to worry about one half of the court, it makes life a lot easier for your blocking scheme.
What I don't understand is that the Braves tried this last weekend at regionals, and after Hanford took a 2-1 lead in the finals, they abandoned it for a straight 5-1 (with Swanson setting all the way around) and pulled out a 3-2 victory.
Why they stuck with this strategy through both of Saturday's matches remains a mystery to me -- and to several wise volleyball observers, people who've forgotten more about the sport than I've learned through the years, who also were left scratching their heads at this decision. If they'd told me I was off-base, I'd have reconsidered my analysis, but each person I talked to agreed with me, which made me feel like some volleyball knowledge had rubbed off on me.