OREM The Panguitch volleyball team waited so long for a trip to the 1A championship match the Bobcats didn't want to risk leaving without top honors.
"We haven't made it here ever," said senior middle blocker Hailey Orton, who earned Deseret Morning News All-Tournament MVP honors for her performance in the Bobcats thrilling 25-20, 20-25, 25-21, 25-19 victory Friday night at UVSC's McKay Events Center. "We knew we couldn't lose. We had to win."
After all, every time she picked up a dig, smashed a kill or put up a block, she was doing it for all of the girls who never got this chance. She invited one of them - Hailey Sawyer - who was the 1A MVP two years ago and now plays basketball for the University of Utah.
"I made her come," Orton said exchanging a wave with her former teammate. And then she just shook her head and sighed.
Orton was everywhere for the Bobcats, including on the attack with 29 kills. When Rich put up a block, she tipped the ball to the open spot on the floor.
"She just does everything," said Panguitch coach Troy Norris. "No one has an answer for her. I think she can play with anyone."
After waiting so long for this moment, Norris said he was remarkably calm.
"I wasn't nervous for this game," said Norris. "I was nervous for all of the other games, but not this one. I watched Rich play, and I knew if we played well, we could play with them. I didn't know if we could beat them, but I knew we could play with them."
As it turned out, the Bobcats played ferociously against the top-ranked Rebels, who owned 14 of the previous 15 1A titles.
In addition to Orton, the Bobcats benefited from the net play of freshman middle Kalani Norris, the coach's daughter. Her defense and 15 kills gave the Bobcats a definite edge.
"We were just waiting for my daughter to come up," Norris said jokingly. "She's a competitor."
Rich can thank themselves, in part, for the level of play displayed by the Bobcats.
"I've got to give so much credit to Rich," said Norris. "They set the bar so high, and we've just been working our butts off to get to that level."
He said the desire to compete with the Rebels helped Panguitch create junior volleyball programs that have made the school a perennial power in the sport.
Norris said this year he changed the way he viewed the entire season, especially Rich.
"Every year I come up to watch them, I scout them, but this year I just said 'We're going to play our game'," he said. "We're not going to worry about what they do. We're just going to hit it at them and do what we need to do."
It worked as the Bobcats owned the momentum most of the match, although it was close throughout. In the end, he said his team had a bit of a mental advantage as well.
"We just took the approach that we have nothing to lose," Norris said. "We just wanted to go out and have fun."
Rich on the other hand has more than a decade of tradition that its young players carried into the match. Only setter Olivia Johnson had varsity experience from last year.
"I think they played tough, but they played more not to lose than to win," said Rich head coach Cindy Stuart, who was all smiles despite the loss. "I'm sure (the pressure) had something to do with it. They knew everyone thought they could lose, and they were worried about that. But we just didn't pass well ... Panguitch did a great job though. They played great."
The offense was led by Allie Eastman who earned 20 kills and Torey Smith, who finished with 14 kills. Brittani Groll added six kills and senior setter Olivia Johnson earned 41 assists and served 10 points.
Libero Marsha Stacey was phenomenal in anchoring the team's defense and she earned 22 digs and had 22 perfect passes."Bless her heart, she played so good all year," Stuart said. "She was just our back bone."