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, the web site of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Gators want to put smudges on title trophy

Xavier Prep volleyball coach Lamar-Renee Bryant would like to see her fingerprints and those of her players all over the 6A Conference state championship trophy.

Will it happen?

We will find out on Thursday night (Nov. 9), when the top-seeded Gators face No. 2 seed and defending champion Tempe Corona del Sol at Gilbert Mesquite. First serve is 7:30 p.m.

“They don’t just hand out trophies to everyone. You have to earn it,’’ Bryant said.

Whichever team wins, they certainly will have earned it. This match offers one of the most highly anticipated pairings of the year or any year.

Both teams left every ounce of energy on the floor in the semifinals on Wednesday night (Nov. 7).

Xavier was stretched to five games against No. 5 Gilbert Perry for the third time this season, and the result was the same – a 3-2 victory by the Gators.

And Corona del Sol’s 3-2 victory over No. 3 Phoenix Mountain Pointe came after Corona del Sol extricated itself from a 0-2 hole.

Xavier (39-3) and Corona del Sol (41-2) will have plenty of motivation against each other.

Xavier’s quest for the 2016 title ended in the semifinals against Corona del Sol, so the Gators aim to atone for that. Xavier did get a bit of revenge earlier this season with victories over the Aztecs in the Nike Tournament of Champions and the Gilbert Invitational tournaments. Those were Corona del Sol’s only losses of the season.

Scores for Xavier against Perry were 23-25, 25-15, 25-20, 20-25 and 15-11.

“We knew it would be a battle. Perry is such a great team,’’ Bryant said. “But we were able to take care of business when we needed to.’’

News of the Gators’ success traveled fast. As she was being interviewed after the game, Bryant took a call from Kristen Largay, a former libero for Xavier who now is playing for American University in Washington, D.C.

“Once a Gator, always a Gator,’’ Bryant said.

Given what is at stake against Corona del Sol, Bryant is going to need each member of the team to step up their play, as they did against Perry.

Sophomore outside hitter Bri McKnight put the Gators on her shoulders at various points of the match. She was particularly tough in the fifth and deciding game, having three kills in a row and providing a key service ace.

Senior libero Alyna Draper and junior libero/defensive specialist Ashley Yeung kept things alive for the Gators with their work along the back line, digging out many of the Perry shots.

Juniors Kate Spellman and Trinity Cavanaugh chipped in with some key serves, and Serena Turner had some crucial kills, showing maturity beyond her freshman standing.

McKnight had 26 kills, 3 aces and 9 digs. Turner and sophomore middle blocker Jasmine Knight had 10 kills apiece. Draper had 29 digs and Yeung had 18. And junior setter and all-purpose player Shannon Shields had 42 assists, 14 digs and 6 kills.

In the first game, Xavier started a bit slow and Perry maintained its pace throughout. The Gators pulled even at 23, then were called for being under the net and allowing a Perry service ace.

Game Two was all Xavier. Shields applied the finishing touches with a kill to the back corner. A kill by McKnight in Game Three put Xavier up 2-1, setting up a possible finish in four games.

That didn’t happen as Perry responded with a quality effort in Game 4.

The Pumas could not endure some self-destruction in Game 5, having four service errors. Still, they were within 13-11 with a key block. Xavier locked it up with the final two points when Perry was called for a double hit, followed by a return shot that fell short and into the net.

Note – Junior outside hitter Hayley Nash did not play against Perry and likely will not be available for the title match after suffering an ankle injury in practice on Monday (Nov. 6).

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