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.

Friday, May 14, 2021

There is nobody greater than these Gators!

 The ball went up near the net, setting Xavier Prep’s Serena Turner up for a kill shot. She swung hard and her opponent from Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor made contact on a block attempt. Instead of landing in bounds, it was out.

Turner, Xavier’s senior star, dropped to her knees and almost appeared ready to bury herself in the sand, putting her hands over her face as if she did not first believe what had occurred.

Her blue-uniformed teammates surrounded her and piled on top of her, screaming at the top of their lungs to salute her and her No. 1 teammate, sophomore Summer McCann, after Xavier claimed the Division I beach volleyball state title, 4-1, at Casteel High in Queen Creek on Thursday night (May 13).

Xavier's Gators celebrate the school's eighth beach volleyball state title in the last nine years (Photo by Don Ketchum).

The championship had been clinched a short while earlier by the Gators’ No. 2 pair of sophomore Lexi Yoza and junior Landree Coats, but the two schools went ahead with the No. 1s to allow them compete in such a setting.

Xavier finished unbeaten at 16-0 and earned the title for the eighth time in nine seasons of the sport with an adventurous effort that might rival any of their predecessors on the excitement scale.

Turner and McCann had dropped their first game 21-16 to O’Connor’s Margo Smith and Sydnee Broadway, then came back to win the next one 23-21 as well as the 15-13 finale.

It would be part of a memorable week for Turner and fellow senior Zaira Reyes, who with junior Katie Anthony won in a nail-biting duel between No. 3 teams, 22-20 and 23-21. The two seniors got the title they had so longed for and on Saturday (May 15) will wear their caps and gowns as they graduate from XCP. And you can add team manager Tessa Guthrie to the list.

“I am so full of emotion right now. I feel so blessed to be able to play on such as amazing team. I owe this all to God,’’ said Turner, who moves on to Stanford to play beach and study computer science and environmental science.

“There were some close games, we all worked so hard and it paid off,’’ she added.

Turner admitted to being a bit stunned by how the final play turned out in the third game.

“It kind of hit me that after that play, I thought, “That was my last swing at Xavier,’ ’’ she said. “It is something that I will always remember.’’

Another memory is her own block to clinch the second game and signal a comeback was imminent.

Reyes will be headed to the University of Rochester (N.Y.) to play indoor volleyball and pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.

“This week has been a rollercoaster of emotion,’’ she said. “Yesterday (Wednesday) was our last day of class. You keep thinking about that all day and then you’re trying to get ready for this match.’’

“We have so many age groups on this team but we all support each other no matter what. We are like a family.’’

She enjoyed playing both indoor and beach.

“In beach, there is a lot of bonding. It is relaxed and it is fun.’’

For Gators head coach Tim McHale, winning it all never gets old.  The 2021 title was the sixth under his leadership.

He had a strong group of assistants, Anna Pangiotakopoulos, Jenny Scott and Cierra Flood.

A new wrinkle was tossed into the mix during the tournament run.

One of the players suggested that she be allowed to paint his fingernails in the school colors of blue and green, the left hand signifying the protection of the No. 1 seeding and the right being added if the Gators reached the title game.

“I’m not too into that kind of stuff but I decided to go with it, if it helps motivate the players, it would be a good thing,’’ he said.

Xavier defeated O’Connor on April 7, 3-2, its closest match of the regular season, so McHale knew this would be similar. Xavier lost the first two games in the first meeting, but rallied to win the final three.

“The last time, our 5’s and 4’s didn’t put their best foot forward, but they were a lot better today,’’ he said.

This time, the 4’s team of junior Alexa Shiner and junior Tiffany Tellez “did a remarkable job, were steady,’’ said McHale. “And I think at one point in one of Zaira’s games, they were down by five but were able to come back.

“The main thing was, we started the match as a family and finished as a family.’’

Championship results

No. 5 pairing – Emma Soncrat-Trinity Freeman, SDO, def. Trinity Tran-Mei Tsou, X, 21-10, 21-18.

No. 4 pairing – Alexa Shiner-Tiffany Tellez, X, def. Liana Huesca-Piper Rama, SDO, 14-21, 21-14, 15-11.

No. 3 pairing – Zaira Reyes-Katie Anthony, X, def. Sophia Myers-Tristan Smith, SDO, 22-20, 23-21.

No. 2 pairing – Lexi Yoza-Landree Coats, X, def. Ashlyn Rough-Hannah Doyle, SDO, 21-15, 16-21, 15-6.

No. 1 pairing – Serena Turner-Summer McCann, X, def. Margo Smith-Sydnee Broadway, SDO, 16-21, 23-21, 15-13.

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