Goldwater Volleyball Festival shows Horizon is beatable

The aura of invincibility that emanated from the Horizon High School girls’ volleyball team at the start of the season may be starting to fade just a little.

A crack in the armour of the pre-season No. 1 team showed up over the weekend when the state’s top Division I teams were thrown together in the gold division of the annual Goldwater Volleyball Festival.

Horizon closed out the tourney, one of the top in-season events in the state, with this year’s title.  But along the way they were beat for the first time this year by an Arizona team when Xavier Prep upset them Saturday morning.

And then Mountain Ridge High School showed there was an answer to the size and talent of the Huskies, as the Mountain Lions countered with enough speed and quickness to be able to score before Horizon’s blockers could ready a defense.

The championship match between the two teams came down to a few deciding points in each set, with Mountain Ridge taking the first set, 25-23, to force Horizon into a come-from-behind win.  The Huskies took the second set, 25-22, and then held on in the final set to win it, and the title, 15-13.

In that final set, Mountain Ridge played the comeback game since Horizon jumped out to a 5-1 lead.  The Mountain Lions were able to recover and run their lead to 9-6 before Horizon asserted itself with a 7-0 run to close it out.

Horizon’s attack was led at the net by Nikki Hess, who had 10 kills.  Mountain Ridge countered with McKenna Witt‘s 10 kills, but also got eight apiece from Madison Witt and Kami ZollerMary Claire Tuohy added 29 digs for Mountain Ridge and Horizon libero Jordan Anderson had 15 digs.

As always, this was a quality championship win in a field of quality teams.  All five of the Division I pre-season Top 5 teams placed among the top five in the tourney.  In addition to Horizon and Mountain Ridge, which was a pre-season No. 4 pick, there were Hamilton High in third (pre-season No. 5), Xavier Prep in fourth (pre-season No. 2) and defending state champion Gilbert High wrapping it up in fifth place (pre-season No. 3).

Xavier Prep won the Goldwater title last year.  Ironically, it was Horizon that the Gators beat in the championship game – which again was closely-contested.  Xavier, the two-time defending state champion at the time, won the event, 25-21 and 25-22.

That wasn’t the only disappointing loss for Horizon last year.  The Huskies made it to the state championship game last year, only to be beat in five sets by Gilbert.

But the Goldwater is generally considered an accurate barometer of the level of competition going into the state tournament, for all divisions.  The event draws 32 of the state’s best high school teams each year and is unique with its format that enables schools to play opponents from other divisions, head-to-head – an opportunity not available during the regular-season schedule.

And from what we can tell, Horizon is still the team to beat.

The Huskies rolled through the Westwood Tournament of Champions earlier in the season without losing a single set, and then beat Xavier, 3-1, in the championship.

That adds up to a powerful argument for Horizon being able to revenge it’s loss to Gilbert in the 2011 state finals, and claiming its own crown this year.

However, we could see a repeat in the playoffs of the top four teams that will vie for this year’s title.  Last year, it was Gilbert and Xavier in one semi-final game and Horizon and Mountain Ridge in the other semi.

And let’s not forget Hamilton – which has beaten Xavier twice in the regular season.

The only thing that seems predictable is that, once again, girls volleyball among Arizona’s Division I schools continues to be a game of musical chairs – with the same players invited each season.

When the music stops at the end of this season, Horizon should be the one with the last seat.