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, November 12, 2021

Gators fall in semis, but can feel good about season

 It would have been an opportunity for the Xavier Prep volleyball players to hang their heads in disappointment after the sixth-seeded Gators fell 3-1 to second-seeded host Chandler Hamilton in Thursday’s (Nov. 11) 6A Conference semifinal.

There was disappointment, to be sure. But the Gators walked out of the Hamilton gym with the knowledge that they had given it their all and made the Huskies squirm before the lights were extinguished.

Xavier finished the season with a more-than-respectable 24-11 record, while Hamilton (33-5) now moves on to the state finals on Saturday night (Nov. 13) at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix.

Hamilton has a chance to repeat as state champion when it faces top-seeded Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor, which rallied from two sets down to edge fourth-seeded Tempe Corona del Sol , 3-2, in the other semifinal.

Xavier had played Hamilton on three previous occasions this season, falling 2-1 in an early season tournament and suffering two 3-0 sweeps at the hands of the Huskies.

In Thursday’s semi, the Gators came out and did not back down in Game 1. With each point, win or lose, it was as if the players were saying, “Hey, we can play with this team.’’

The teams took their fans on a wild state fair tilt-a-whirl ride, trading the lead and going past what is the usual 25-point conclusion (by two points is necessary) before Hamilton survived with a 28-26 win.

Xavier coach Lamar-Renee Bryant smiled at the end of the evening when asked about what might have been.

“We battled. We made it interesting. We just took our foot off the gas,’’ she said.

The Gators brought with them a large, loud group of supporters, who assuredly kept the players’ energy at a high level.

Hamilton, awakened by the Gators’ aggressiveness, rolled to a 25-11 victory in Game 2 before Xavier came back for a 25-21 victory in Game 3. Xavier kept Game 4 close until the Huskies’ strength and power began to take their toll. Hamilton used a late, quick 4-0 burst to help it secure the match 25-16.

The start of the regular season was uncertain, due in part to COVID issues, and that slowed the Gators’ development to a degree. But they kept going, to where they reached the semis.

“All of the girls battled and that’s all I could ask for,’’ said Bryant, whose coaching effort this season might have been the best of her Xavier tenure.

She was thrilled by how the seniors took ownership in the product, providing good examples for the younger girls to follow.

One of the most improved players certainly was senior outside hitter Emma Soderstrom, who became the “go-to’’ power source at all the right moments. She also proved to be a complete player, excelling on defense.

Senior setter Alexa Shiner was a steady influence, putting the ball where it needed to be.

Senior defensive specialist/libero Hannah Ulisch came on strong in the latter half of the season.

And senior middle blocker Bella Sinacori had many impactful moments.

There are, as Bryant undoubtedly is relieved, prospects for a bright future in 2022. A handful of underclassmen stepped forward – freshman defensive specialist/libero Olivia Lenz, junior outside hitter Ava Larkin, junior middle blocker Emma Caruso, freshman middle blocker Elle McCreery and sophomore outside hitter Finley Workman.

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