TUMWATER - You could say the pressure was on the Tumwater Thunderbirds.
The T-Birds, ranked No. 5 in the latest statewide volleyball poll, hadn't lost a match - let alone a game - in league play this season. And with their second consecutive Class 2A Evergreen Conference title within reach, a feisty Black Hills Wolves team could claim a share of the conference title with a match win over their crosstown rivals on Thursday.
But Black Hills will have to wait another year.
Tumwater clinched its section consecutive EvCo title and third straight league title outright with a 3-1 win over Black Hills on Thursday night in front of a packed gymnasium at Tumwater High School. Cristin Richards' match-high 11 kills and Emily Sampson's 26 assists sparked the T-Birds in their 25-16, 25-13, 21-25, 25-17 win. Black Hills' Game 3 victory marked the first time this season Tumwater lost a game in league play.
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"In the last two tournaments, we lost a couple of games," said T-Birds outside hitter Amanda Warner, who had nine kills and nine digs. "Our goal was how we were going to get out of that."
Tumwater (12-0) jumped out to big leads in Games 1 and 2 as unforced errors and miscommunication by Black Hills (10-2) gave Tumwater nearly half its points in each game.
The T-Birds were able to find open holes in the Wolves' defense and a lot of Black Hills' attackers saw Tumwater blockers at the net. Tumwater looked to be in control of the match.
"We were giving them points left and right," Black Hills coach Kara Peterson said. "I was disappointed in the way they played. I don't think Tumwater beat us, I think we lost."
"It was mostly the mistakes on our side," Black Hills middle blocker Kailah Lenz said. "We weren't playing to win, we were playing not to lose. We just needed to calm down and play our game."
It was Game 3, where the Black Hills team that had won 10 conference matches, showed up.
The Wolves jumped out to a 6-2 lead behind Hillary Lutz's four straight serves and Christine Hilt's two straight kills. The lead was the first for Black Hills in the entire match. Even though Tumwater coach Tana Croft called time out at 8-2, Black Hills kept rolling. Lenz's kill and a block, followed by six straight serves by Hilt helped increase the Wolves' lead to 11-2.
"That was my team in Game 3," Peterson said. "I told them you have to play for pride and yourselves. Bring the team to the gym that should have arrived in Game 1."
With the Wolves' lead at 18-9 and a chance to close the door, Tumwater had a power surge to pull within one at 21-20. The Wolves closed out the Game 3 win on Jessica Levine's kill, one of her team-high 10 on the night, and Tumwater libero Katrina McClaflin's hitting error.
"We were still smiling (after Game 3) and that's huge with our team," Tumwater coach Tana Croft said. "Seeing the smiles on their faces after we lost meant we were going to come out and do better in Game 4."
The T-Birds did just that.
Despite Black Hills coming out with a quick 3-0 lead, Tumwater responded with back-to-back kills and took advantage of Black Hills' hitting and passing errors. Richards had four straight serves that caused havoc for Black Hills' passers trying to get the ball to setter Taylor Aschenbrenner. The sophomore had only 19 assists in the match on 105 attempts and seven errors - two during a critical point late in Game 4. Richards' kill ended the game and match at 25-17.
"Everyone started getting everything up, and we were ready to win," Lenz said. "We needed to carry that on and we didn't."
"After that third game, we knew exactly what we needed to do to get back in it," Warner said, "and do what we know how to do, which is win."