Bio

DON KETCHUM is a native of Phoenix. He was a sportswriter for The Arizona Republic/The Phoenix Gazette for nearly four decades. He covered high school sports on several occasions as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State sports. From 2008-14, he was a staff writer for AIA365.com, the web site of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Gator volleyball has quite a view from the top

In the days leading up to Thursday night’s (Nov. 9) 6A Conference state championship volleyball match, coach Lamar-Renee Bryant spoke of Xavier Prep’s 75th anniversary celebration.

She mentioned that it was fitting with the state titles won by golf and swim-dive, a state runner-up by cross country and a solid season from badminton.

And Bryant wanted her team to be included in that conversation.

So go ahead, shout it from the mountaintops: “The Gators are state champs!’’

Xavier, which fell to Tempe Corona del Sol in last year’s semifinals (Corona went on to win it all), atoned for that loss with a 3-1 victory over the Aztecs at Gilbert Mesquite.

After dropping the first game, the Gators rebounded to win three in a row. Scores were 23-25, 26-24, 25-17 and 25-17. A deep blue sea of screaming Xavier fans saved their biggest enthusiasm for the end.

Xavier finished 40-3, Corona del Sol 41-3. All of its losses were to Xavier.

“This was our mission, our goal, and we did it,’’ said Bryant, who earned her second title for Xavier (the first came in 2013, her first season).

“We wanted to go out there and play all-out, have no regrets.’’

The stars were many for the Gators, but perhaps it was fitting that 6-foot-2 senior outside hitter and co-captain Lanie Wagner exterted her influence in her last prep match.

Bryant said that Wagner “did not have her best day’’ in Tuesday’s (Nov. 7) five-set win over Gilbert Perry in the semifinals.

Against Corona del Sol, the situation “was a totally different story,’’ Bryant said.

“She was determined, she was serious,’’ Bryant said. “You couldn’t have written a better story.’’

Wagner, who will study and play volleyball at the University of Georgia, had 22 kills, 17 digs, 2 service aces and 2 blocks.

Another senior, Ericka Snopko, had 7 kills and 4 blocks, while sophomores Bri McKnight and Jasmine Knight had 13 and 7 kills, respectively.

Junior setter Shannon Shields did a good job putting the ball in the right place to allow her teammates to score, and senior libero Alyna Draper had some key serves and played well defensively along the back line.

Both players, who are good friends, collected state titles for Xavier in beach volleyball, but this one might rate an edge.

“This is amazing,’’ Draper said. “It lets you know that all the hard work you put in over these last few years has paid off. We really worked together as a family.’’

Said Shields: “It is the best feeling, that Alyna and I were able to win a ring together.

“We just showed up and played the way we needed to. I think we were more motivated. We had confidence, even after that first loss, and we couldn’t be stopped.’’

Now Shields must try to figure out what to do for an encore in 2018.

Draper, Wagner, Snopko and Alexis Diaz-Infante will graduate, but XCP will have plenty of talent returning.

In addition to Shields, there are current juniors Ashley Yeung, Jennelle Yarwood, Trinity Cavanaugh, Hayley Nash and Kate Spellman. Current sophomores are McKnight and Knight. And there are two freshmen – Serena Turner and Christianna Griedl.

“It’s going to be great,’’ said Shields of next year. “Some teams will be rebuilding, but we will still have a lot of power. I am locked in right now and ready to go out and win another one.’’

The opening game was tied at 23, but Corona del Sol finished with the “W’’ on a kill shot by senior star Brooke Nuneviller and a net violation by the Gators.

It was much the same in the second game. The contest was tied at 24 and then Wagner came up with a kill to the back corner and the Aztecs made a return that was out of bounds.

Corona del Sol jumped to the early lead in Game 3, but Xavier finally gained control near the midway point. The Gators finished it off with a block. They were strong on the block all night against Nuneviller and her teammates.

Game 4 was pretty much a repeat of Game 3. Corona del Sol grabbed the early lead and Xavier gained a lead it would not relinquish on a shot by Snopko. Xavier got help from the Aztecs in the decisive last moments in the form of a net serve and a return shot into the net.

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