Xavier steps over Horizon, beats Hamilton for volleyball title

By the time last night’s Division I volleyball championship match rolled around, Xavier Prep had already faced its biggest challenge.  The Gators had to get past the team everyone had expected would be crowned this year, Horizon High School.

But Xavier beat Horizon in the semi-finals and then put away Hamilton High in the finals to finish the job it failed to do last year when Horizon beat the Gators for the 2012 state title.

Horizon was loaded with talent this year, with five of its players committed to D-I colleges when the season began.  The Huskies are athletic, tall, and were seen by many as perhaps the best team the school has produced in a long time. Nationally-ranked this season, the Huskies went undefeated against in-state schools during the regular season.

In fact, when Xavier pulled off the upset in the semis, it was the first time in four meetings with Horizon that the Gators came out on top.

However, beating No. 2 Hamilton for the title was no walk in the park.  It took Xavier five sets to accomplish the feat, with scores of 20-25, 25-23, 23-25, 25-10, and 15-8.

Hamilton won the Gold Division of the Westwood Tournament of Champions, generally considered the first major tournament of the season. by sweeping all four teams it faced in the event’s 12-team top bracket.  So Hamilton, like Horizon, had a target on its back all through the season.

But in the end, it was the senior-laden team of Xavier that was able to use that experience to rally after losing two of the first three sets to the younger Huskies and eventually pull out a win when it mattered most, in the state championship match.  It was a sophomore, however, that powered the Gators through crunch time, as 6’2″ outside hitter Khalia Lanier contributed 12 kills during the final two sets.

The fact that Xavier was playing under a new head coach this year would normally be considered a reason to question the team’s stability in that first year.  But Lamar-Renee Bryant, who took over for Tim McHale after the retired McHale loaded the Xavier trophy case with six state titles, moved up from her role as JV coach and knew both the system and the players.  So it proved to be a seamless transition.

And no time was that more apparent than last month when Xavier became the first Arizona high school team to win the Platinum title at the Nike Tournament of Champions, beating three out-of-state powers to earn the title.

You can also look back to the results of earlier tournaments to help predict the new state champion in Division II.  The Sunnyslope High Vikings, who returned seven key players from last year’s squad,  justified their pre-season expectations by making it through the Westwood TofC, where they lost to Division I Hamilton in the semi-finals, and then went on to win the Goldwater Volleyball Festival.

Third-seeded Sunnyslope struggled in its first set last night against Campo Verde High, but recovered quickly to coast through the next two sets and stake its claim to this year’s D-II state title.  Sunnyslope jumped out to an early seven-point lead in the first set, but top-ranked Campo rallied and came within two at 25-23, but it was all Vikings in the next two as Sunnyslope won going away, 25-12, 25-8.  It was a stunning domination over a team that has made it to the playoffs the past two yers and won 39 games this season.

The Vikes were led to their sixth title in the last eight years by senior outside hitter Jenny Thompson, who had 24 kills, and sophomore OH Libby Fleury, who contributed 21 service points and 16 digs.  Libby’s sister, junior libero Molly Fleury, added 16 digs, and sophomore setter Katie Oleksak pitched in 29 assists.