OREM — It is safe to say that it is never a good thing for a team to be searching for answers at playoff time. The ideal would be for a team to be playing its best volleyball heading into the state tournament.
Panguitch head coach Troy Norris said in an interview with Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson that the winner of the state championship usually comes down to “just whoever is on.”
With an 18-3 record and a Region 22 title, the Rich Rebels are one of the pre-eminent 1A title contenders. They showed that Friday afternoon at Utah Valley University’s UCCU Center when they took down the Monument Valley Cougars in three sets, 25-18, 25-18, 29-27 in the 1A quarterfinals.
The victorious Rebels were led by a quartet of senior stars, including outside hitters Savannah Peart, Julia Hopkin, middle blocker Taleesha Larsen and libero Amberlee Smith. Hopkin was the standout performer in many ways, tallying a team-best 15 kills and two blocks. Peart was no slouch with 11 kills and two blocks, while Larsen was a Jill-of-all-trades, racking up eight kills, a block and an assist.
Smith was stalwart defensively with upwards of 30 digs, while setter Kiera Groll accounted for 31 assists.
“(Kiera) played great,” said Rich head coach Cindy Stuart. “Julia did as well. She is our outside hitter and always has a lot of kills. Then there was (Savannah) who is a perfect passer. She is our best passer.”
As sweet as the victory over the Cougars was and the semifinal berth that accompanied it, the Rebels have their fair share of question marks at the midpoint of the state tournament.
“One of our best players, Savannah Peart, is hurt,” said Stuart. “She is our team leader, our floor leader. She plays when she can and then she goes out. We’re still trying to find someone that can fill (her outside hitter) spot when she goes out.”
The job of filling Peart’s shoes has fallen mainly on freshmen, Stuart said, which was on display throughout much of the contest against Monument Valley.
“In the second game I was playing young kids,” said Stuart. “By the end we had a freshman serving, a freshman setter and a freshman outside hitter.”
The Rebel youths had their moments, helping the team claim the first two sets without too much difficulty. The third set was an entirely different story, however, as the Cougars jumped out to an early 12-5 lead.
Ironically, the blame for the slow start fell largely at the feet of the Rich varsity players, rather than the youngsters.
“When you play young kids a lot, your varsity kids kind of let down,” said Stuart.
Eventually, the Rebels, old and young, turned things around, claiming the third and final set.
“It wouldn’t have hurt had we lost that third game,” said Stuart. “I wanted to see that they could step up. They knew that. They just played through it. I thought they did good.”
Also Friday afternoon on a court a few feet away, the top-ranked Milford Tigers took out the Valley Owls in five grueling sets, 25-21, 25-13, 20-25, 14-25, 15-7. Rich and Milford will play in one of two 1A semifinal matches Saturday at 11 a.m.
Saturday’s other semifinal game, set to be played at 9:30 a.m., will pit the Panguitch Bobcats against the Monticello Buckaroos.
Monticello defeated Tabiona in three sets, 25-19, 25-23, 25-22, early Friday afternoon, while Panguitch swept Intermountain Christian 25-19, 25-19, 25-13.
“I thought our passing was fine and we were getting our serves in,” said Norris. “If you can serve and pass, that is always a good sign.”
Norris added that his girls “overcame some nerves, and finally relaxed and started hitting the ball.”
Leading the way for the Bobcats, among others, were libero Brittany Henrie, outside hitter Camri Fischer and setter Kapri Orton.