OREM — It is difficult not to feel the significance of each hit when a state championship is on the line.
But after Desert Hills fell behind two sets to one in the 3A state championship volleyball match, head coach Jill Swaney asked her teenage players to ignore the prize that the five-year old program was fighting for on the court at UVU Saturday night.
"I told them this is just a game," she said after the Thunder won a five-set thriller against region rival Snow Canyon 25-11, 23-25, 18-25, 25-19, 15-12. "I told them to stop attaching meaning to what was going on and just play."
The strategy worked as the Thunder edged the Warriors, a team that has played for a state title in seven straight seasons. The momentum shifts were frequent, and in some cases massive, as the two evenly-matched squads tried to find a way past the other.
In the fifth set, the score was tied 10 times before the Thunder came out on top.
"I think it's not a great state championship if it's not a struggle back and forth," Swaney said. "We love Snow Canyon. They're great competitors. They are the ones who push us. They have a great tradition."
It took everything the Thunder had to get past the Warriors. They were led by Lynzee Jones, who had seven kills and eight blocks. Junior Blair Bliss led the team with 21 kills, while Samantha Loe added 12 kills. Setter Alexa Goulding was key with 37 assists, while Julia Perez provided critical defense with 25 digs.
The Thunder made short work of the first set but Snow Canyon battled back, blocking Bliss over and over in the second set.
Bliss said she was frustrated, but asked her coach where she should put the ball.
"I just kept swinging away," she said. "I couldn't play timid. Snow Canyon had a big block, but I knew I had to find a way around it for my team."
Bliss said her older sister, Brooke, who won a state title when the family lived in Richfield, offered her some advice before the match even though she couldn't attend.
"She's my inspiration," Blair said, emotion stopping her thoughts for a moment. "She told me to go out there with no regrets."
Swaney said she was thrilled for the school and community, but most of all for her players who worked so hard and played in such a competitive region.
"I have 14 great girls, and there is not one girl I wouldn't have trusted to step on that floor tonight," Swaney said. "This is the best feeling in the world as a coach. I'm happy for them. This is something I've wanted them to experience."
While the Warriors were disappointed, the team and their fans were keeping the second-place finish in perspective.
"This is not the result we wanted, but it's better to have played in the championship match and lost than not to have played in it at all," Snow Canyon head coach Alaina Parker said. "And these kids understand that in the scope of things, this isn't a big deal. It's been a tough week for Snow Canyon. They buried a classmate today. That put a lot of things in perspective. It's helped us to understand that we're lucky to have the chance to step onto the volleyball court every day."
The Warriors were mourning the loss of 15-year-old Whitney Webb, who died a week ago at Primary Children's Medical Center after being buried in sand at Snow Canyon State Park the day before. This is the third classmate the students have lost in less than a year.
"We're grateful for everything, and grateful to be Warriors," Parker said. The Warriors bounced back from a dismal start to win the second and third sets with huge play at the net. The team was led by freshman outside hitter Alexsa Parker, who finished with 19 kills, and senior Natalie Swann, who added 19 kills and 31 digs. Jordan Johnston picked up 28 digs, while setter Samantha Lewis had 33 assists.
Bliss wiped away tears as she described the ride the Thunder have been on this season.
"It feels so great," Bliss said. "This team has gone through some ups and downs, and it feels so great to get that state championship."
MVP: Lindsey Jones, Desert Hills
Blair Bliss, Desert Hills
Alexa Goulding, Desert Hills
Samantha Loe, Desert Hills
Julia Perez, Desert Hills
Alexsa Parker, Snow Canyon
Natalie Swann, Snow Canyon
Jordan Johnston, Snow Canyon
Megan Leavitt, Snow Canyon
Samantha Lewis, Snow Canyon
Kennedy Springer, Delta
McKenzie Schenk, Morgan