DENVER — The Class 4A state volleyball championships may have had a few small wrinkles to it over the course of the weekend, but all in all it played true to seeding on Saturday — a rarity for this version of the all-classification event at the Denver Coliseum.
While other top seeds fell in pool play from 5A all the way down to 1A, the top four seeds from 4A made semifinals. Generally speaking, that made No. 3 Holy Family and No. 4 Niwot underdogs in their semifinal matches against No. 2 Valor Christian and No. 1 Lewis-Palmer, respectively.
The two matches couldn't have been any more different, but in the end the Cougars and Tigers both saw their fantastic seasons come to a close in the final four.
Lewis-Palmer, ranked fifth in the nation by MaxPreps and 10th by USA Today, overcame a first set loss to NHS to win 3-1, while Valor Christian exacted revenge on Holy Family (3-2) after the Tigers ousted them in last year's semifinals.
Lewis-Palmer went on to claim the 4A title for the second straight year and ran its match winning streak to 58.
"Something that Lewis-Palmer has in their favor is that everyone is scared of them, so we were mentally preparing for this one all week seeing them as a team we could beat," said Niwot's senior outside hitter Mackenzie Fidelak after the 19-25, 25-16, 25-21, 25-10 win for the Rangers (29-0). "We were fired up and had that 'why not us' attitude. It was a boost to start but tough to finish."
"We would have really liked to have beaten Valor and got a shot at Lewis-Palmer again," Holy Family's Julia Giltner, a staple in the middle for the Tigers, said after Valor cleared its path to the title game with a 25-19, 25-22, 20-25, 23-25, 15-11 win. "But Valor deserved to win and they are a good team for sure."
In its second straight state appearance but first semifinals appearance since 1997, Niwot was in uncharted waters while taking on the Rangers — yet it did not initially show out on the court. Fidelak was relied on heavily in the attack — everywhere else, really — and the Cougars block started with fast feet against LP's array of hitters.
But after the first set, libero Katie Pearson was forced out of action with a leg injury and that initial scramble put Niwot in a bit of a mental lapse in set two. Set three was much more competitive with Niwot holding a lead as late as 19-17, but Lewis-Palmer was able to parlay that game rally into a strong fourth set to close it out.
"We had some fire behind us even into that second game, but there were just a few balls that didn't go our way that took the wind out of our sails," Niwot coach Daisha Agho said as her team finished 22-6. "Trying to find that energy level again after a let-down, that is a big task.
"We lost our libero to a quad injury and that put a kink into things. But I'm very proud of their mentality through the whole match."
Also looking for that chance to meet up with Lewis-Palmer for the second straight year in the state title match, Holy Family (25-3) backed itself into a corner against Valor and had to fight off elimination with two very tight rallying games.
The senior-heavy Tigers showed grit and even took an early 3-0 lead in the shortened fifth set, but Valor Christian (23-6) rallied for six straight points and then took the lead for good at 8-7 on a kill from junior Lily Thomason. Thomason would add two more kills and Myki Timlin had a say with the finish with a block and a kill for the final two points.
"We talked a lot about our confidence being able to come to us and it did, and we started to pick up the pace after that," Holy Family coach Krista Solomon said. "But they're a good team. They blocked us well. They have some good hitters and they serve really well. And, they covered the court."
Ali Travis, a junior, led the Tigers with 18 kills and seniors Rachel Siurek and Julia Giltner combined for 25 more in the loss.
"We invested so much emotionally in coming back, and it just wasn't enough in the end to beat them," Giltner said. "We gave it our best, though."