DENVER — Twenty-seven years had passed since the Niwot volleyball team last played in a state championship match.
When they finally made it back to the title game at the Denver Coliseum on Saturday night, the Cougars found themselves to be overwhelming underdogs against the juggernaut program that has held a stranglehold on Class 4A volleyball in Colorado for a half-decade.
Niwot entered Saturday night's 4A championship match as the No. 3 seed and looking for its first-ever state title. The two time defending-champion Lewis-Palmer Rangers entered as the No. 1 seed and having been victorious in four of the previous five title matches.
Saturday night's championship match played out the way most matches involving Lewis-Palmer do, with the Rangers winning in straight sets — 25-11, 25-15, 25-10 — and claiming their third straight title. But for the Cougars, returning their club to the final match of the season and hearing their names announced during the Parade of Champions was a victory unto itself.
"Ever since I came to Niwot, it has always been our goal to walk out in that championship parade and to get our names called at the Coliseum," Niwot senior Madison Schoeder said. "That was a dream come true for all of us tonight. It was our goal to make it to that match and I'm so proud of us for putting up a fight. It took a lot of hard work and practice, and our coach did such a good job of training us. We're proud to be the team to take Niwot back to the championship match."
Niwot, then led by current volleyball assistant and girls basketball head coach Terri Ward, lost to Montrose in the 1990 4A title match. Prior to Saturday night, it had stood for nearly 30 years as the Cougars' lone finals appearance.
Playing in its seventh straight title match, Lewis-Palmer (28-1) lost just nine total sets this season. The Cougars (25-4) struggled even more than expected in the match against the Rangers in part because of limited availability from senior outside hitter Audrey Richard, who does a bit of everything for the Cougars but who had injured her ankle on the final play of the quarterfinals against Holy Family on Friday night.
"When you have a group that plays together as long as they do, you're going to have that chemistry and that camaraderie," Niwot head coach Daisha Agho said. "They're also used to being in that match and we were up against that as well. Our effort was there and we were just on our heels and out of system too much. We couldn't get Emma (Falk) and Zoe (Gonzales) involved as easily and as often as I wanted to. Defensively we were doing OK but without Audrey there, we didn't have as much to keep them off balance and they pretty much had a hitting clinic on us.
"Terri Ward was the one who coached Niwot to the championship match in 1990 and she joined us as an assistant coach midway through the season. She showed the girls the trophy and she helped let them know what to expect, and she helped challenge them to rise up. Our goal was to make it to the very last game on the very last day of the season and we did it. It was a fun season."
Just to reach the title match, the Cougars had to get past a tough local rival.
During the 2018 regular season, Northern League rivals Niwot and Longmont (23-6) each defeated the other once, and each time by a score of 3-1. Longmont took the teams' first meeting on Sept. 25 and Niwot won on Oct. 18. In the state semifinals on Saturday afternoon, their most recent matchup was tied 23 different times but the Cougars still pulled off the sweep, 25-23, 25-22, 25-18.
After also losing 3-1 to Lewis-Palmer in the winners bracket quarterfinals on Friday, Longmont reached the semifinals by coming from behind 2-0 to beat No. 2 Discovery Canyon, 15-25, 23-25, 25-23, 25-14, 15-13 in the contenders bracket quarterfinals on Saturday morning. The Trojans are the only 4A team to win a set against Lewis-Palmer this season.
The Rangers were also responsible for eliminating No. 7 seed Holy Family, knocking the Tigers (17-11) out in the semifinals on Friday by a score of 25-12, 25-12, 25-14. It was Holy Family's third straight semifinals appearance since 2016.
"We just haven't seen that kind of speed. We've seen some really good teams, but they are a great team, no doubt about it," Holy Family coach Krista Solomon said. "There is a reason they keep winning, and I respect them for that.
"Our goal for next year will be to get back here and make sure we get another shot at them."