OREM — Coach Daniel McKeehan knew the Hurricane volleyball team was capable of much more than it had managed to show on the court this season.
The Tigers saved their best for the last match of the season, and it was a near perfect, absolutely dominating performance against a team that had beaten them three times in the last two months. Those losses didn’t discourage Hurricane’s players or coaches as they chose to see every meeting with Region 9 champion and No. 1-ranked Desert Hills as an opportunity.
“The season is all about getting better,” McKeehan said after fourth-ranked Hurricane swept Desert Hills, 25-19, 25-19, 25-11, to capture the 3A state championship Saturday night. “They’ve beaten us three times this year, and it’s really hard to close a team out. You saw it with us and Snow Canyon (in the semifinals). They almost got us. For us, (the losses) just made us hungrier and hungrier.”
Despite knowing his players were capable of more, even McKeehan was stunned with the way the Tigers rolled over the Thunder, a squad that lost just four matches all season — all to schools from larger classifications.
“I thought this would be a five-set, 15-13 finish,” McKeehan said. “Desert Hills, they’re so good. Those outside hitters on their team are so good. Their setter, they’re just so, so good. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
What he saw was a team inspired and focused. And for the teenagers, who giggled and grinned as they passed the trophy around for pictures, it was about more than the scoreboard, a ring or a ride on a firetruck.
“This one is for our community and for Tanner Yazzie,” said libero Hannah Rich.
Yazzie is a former Hurricane High football player who passed away Oct. 30 from complications related to diabetes. The players gathered before the playoffs and decided their title run would be dedicated to Yazzie.
“This year’s theme is service, sacrifice and loyalty,” said Rich. “Us girls just agreed we should play for him and his family. We did it for him. … I would think he would be proud.”
The girls tied red ribbons in their hair in honor of Yazzie, and then they played the kind of volleyball that even the opposing coach knew they were capable of executing.
“They played absolutely amazing,” said Desert Hills head coach Jill Swaney. “We knew this was the kind of team they were. They finally showed it to us at the right moment."
The Thunder were led by Blair Bliss, who earned 12 kills against the Tiger defense. Libero Julia Perez added 12 digs, while setter Alexa Goulding earned 16 assists. Swaney said the Thunder had nothing but admiration and affection for their opponents.
"We’re proud of those girls," she said. "We love Hurricane. We love the competition they give us. They make us better. As a region we’re strong because we make each other better. They deserve this.”
The difference was the stellar serving of Hurricane, the big blocking led by senior middle Malary Reid, and the jaw-dropping third-set performance of Reid.
“The serves were the difference in the game,” McKeehan said. “We felt like we could receive them. And if we could keep them out of system, we could win. Fortunately we were able to do that. If they’d have stayed in system, they’d have killed us.”
He acknowledged Rich’s efforts in the match.
“Hannah struggled (Friday),” he said. “She really had a hard time passing the ball. But late in the game, she was a sponge. She soaked up every ball. She was fantastic for us.”
Rich finished with 12 digs, while Brooklyn Gubler, a senior outside hitter, led the team’s offense with 15 kills. The other senior outside hitter, Shania Hurst, added 11 kills, and junior setter Addie Edwards did a masterful job distributing the ball. She finished with 27 assists.
The tone was set right from the start when senior middle Reid put up an offense-altering block. She finished with 5 1/2 blocks, four of those solo.
“She moved here from Moab and missed her junior year with an ACL,” McKeehan said. “She wasn’t playing much at the beginning of the year. She just had footwork problems, couldn’t hit a quick set. But we could see she was going to be pretty good. To be honest with you, I think she was the MVP of the state tournament. She was huge for us.”
Edwards said the players' decision to focus on the mental aspects of the game made them feel more prepared and more focused than at any other time during the season.
“We were just so mentally prepared,” she said. “I don’t think the other three times we played them we were as mentally prepared. We just came in here knowing we were going to (win).”
When asked if the feeling of winning a title was anything like she expected, Edwards sighed and smiled.
“It’s the best thing in the world,” she said, looking around for one last assist from her teammates. “I don’t know. I just don’t have the words.”
Rich, her best friend, added, “It feels amazing. It feels like a dream.”