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By Jocelyn Rowley
Sports@lhvc.com 

Volleyball: Niwot’s state title bid ends in semifinal loss to Lewis-Palmer

 

November 16, 2017

Ed Navarro

Senior Mackenzie Fidelak (7) goes for the kill against Palmer Ridge.

Last Friday at the Denver Coliseum, the Niwot volleyball team did something no other Niwot team has done since 1997 -- advanced to the final four of the Class 4A state tournament. With a boisterous contingent of fans cheering them on, the No. 4 seed Cougars dispatched No. 9 Discovery Canyon 23-25, 25-15, 25-17, 25-15 and No. 5 seed Palmer Ridge 20-25, 25-20, 25-20, 25-13 to clinch a berth in the semifinal round, their first in 20 years.

Unfortunately for Niwot, their semifinal opponent was No. 1 seed and defending state champion Lewis-Palmer. When these two teams met back in September at an early season tournament, the Rangers thumped the Cougars 2-0 (15-25, 17-25), and then went on to have a nearly perfect season. In their first round pool matches, the undefeated Rangers cruised to straight-set victories over Muller (12) and Roosevelt (8).

When the semifinal matches finally got underway on Saturday, the Cougars looked like world-beaters in the opening set. Led by captain and Stanford-bound senior Mackenzie Fidelak, the Cougars played their best volleyball of the season, executing with ruthless efficiency on both offense and defense. Juniors Emma Falk and Zoe Gonzales made their presence known at the net, while sophomore Emma Shiers had three critical kills down the stretch, including the final point of a 5-0 run to close out the first set for Niwot, 25-19. For the Cougars and their cheering section, the nationally ranked Rangers suddenly seemed beatable.

Their hopefulness was short-lived, however. Early in the second set, senior libero Katie Pearson left the match with a quadriceps injury, forcing Niwot head coach Daisha Agho to make some unexpected lineup adjustments, and bringing the Cougars’ momentum to a screeching halt. Taking advantage, the defending champs jumped out to an early 11-4 lead, and barely slowed on their way to a 25-16 win.

For the remainder of the match, miscommunication and unforced errors plagued the Cougars as they struggled to find an answer for the Rangers’ outside hitters. Niwot kept pace with Lewis-Palmer in third set, but was finally worn down by the Rangers’ quick attack and fell 25-21. Under pressure in the fourth game, Niwot gave up a 7-0 run to Lewis-Palmer early on and never recovered. The Cougars went on to lose the set 25-10, ending their championship dreams for another year.

“I told the girls in the huddle after the match ended that that was one of the most fun coaching experiences I’ve had,” Agho said following the loss to the eventual state title winners. “Because of their energy, their effort, going in against a team like that, and the fire that they brought. The first set was phenomenal. I haven’t seen them perform that well and that hyped and that excited all season long.”

She went on to say that Pearson’s exit was the turning point in the match. “Our serve receipt kind of fell apart. If we’d been able to get into our system a little bit more, it would have been a different game. When you start something and you get that vibe and you have that energy going and all of the sudden you have to change it…it rattles the team and rattles things for the back row.”

An emotional Audrey Richard spoke on behalf of the players following the loss. “In that last match, we gave them a run for their money,” the junior outside hitter said. “I think that we need to be proud of how we played. Everyone made a positive contribution and we couldn’t have done it without every one of the twelve girls on the team.”

Though they fell two wins short of their goal, Niwot’s 2017 season was a memorable one. Under first-year coach Agho, the Cougars went 22-6 overall and came away with both the Northern League and a regional title. Behind Fidelak, the team finished among the top 10 in Class 4A in just about every statistical category, including assists (4th), blocks (4th), and kills (8th). Crucial to the Cougars’ success was a deep bench, which mitigated the effect of injuries and gave Agho flexibility in her row combinations down the stretch. In particular, junior Katie Hirsh was instrumental early in the season when Agho was still finalizing her offensive schemes.

“She ran a 6-2 offense with Mac all season long, and she did it very, very well,” Agho said of the first year varsity setter. When junior transfer Madison Schoeder joined the lineup in October, Agho switched to a 5-1 offense, which reduced Hirsh’s playing time. “It’s hard to tell a player that that’s now going to be her role, since she’s really one of the big reasons we’re in this situation and we’re at the state tournament. Kudos to her for getting us here and for taking on the other role and doing it with poise and composure.”

Agho also credited assistant coaches Colleen Ford, Tricia Grafelman, and husband and wife team, Erin and Joe Schmidt, for their contributions to the Cougars’ historic season. “We wouldn’t be where we are without them, too. They are the reason that the behind-the-scenes stuff goes so well, and all of those little things that people don’t notice are coming from them.”

Though Agho will lose a crucial piece of the puzzle when Fidelak graduates in May, she anticipates her relatively youthful squad will return largely intact next fall, and said there are several players eager to step up and try to fill the departing captain’s shoes. She also thinks that avenging this semifinal loss will give returners a little extra incentive in 2018.

“I’m very excited about what’s to come also,” the coach said. “Next year looks very promising, and I fully expect to be back here again.”

(11/10) — Niwot 3, Discovery Canyon 1

Thunder (15-11) 25 15 17 29

Cougars (21-5) 23 25 25 25

(11/10) — Niwot 3, Palmer Ridge 1

Ed Navarro

Audrey Richard serves against Palmer Ridge at the Class 4A state tournament.

Bears (23-3) 25 20 20 13

Cougars (22-5) 20 25 25 25

(11/11) — Lewis-Palmer 3, Niwot 1

Cougars (22-5) 25 16 21 10

Rangers (28-0) 21 25 25 25

 

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