Faith Lutheran able to climb final rung

In the blink of an eye, all the bad memories left the mind of Faith Lutheran’s Cayla Nikodemus.

One minute, she was a member of a squad that had lost a semifinal match of the 2012 state tournament, and the next she was a member of the 2013 championship team.

The junior outside hitter said she wasn’t about to lose again, and she delivered on that promise with 13 kills and six digs to help the Crusaders defeat Dayton 25-13, 25-18, 26-24 in the Division I-A championship match Saturday at Green Valley.

“We were devastated last year,” said Nikodemus, who helped give Faith Lutheran its first state volleyball title. “The coaches talked to us about it because they knew our mindset wasn’t right. I felt a big responsibility to put the balls down. I took the job very seriously and helped my team win.”

That win never was in question as the Crusaders took a 10-1 lead in the first set, in which Nikodemus had four kills. She was only getting started.

After the Dust Devils took a 6-0 lead in the second set, Nikodemus ignited a 6-1 scoring spurt with three straight kills that helped the Crusaders pull within 7-6. Dayton stayed close before succumbing to a late run that Nikodemus capped with a big cross-court spike to give the Crusaders a 2-0 match lead.

Faith Lutheran coach Amy Fisher said she did not expect her team to be so dominant.

“Dayton is an excellent team,” she said. “They came down here with the best record in the state, but we felt calm and our adrenaline was flowing.”

The third set presented a bigger challenge for the Crusaders, who led early but were forced to survive four tie scores down the stretch.

“The kids have been in these situations before,” Fisher said. “We play a tougher (regular-season) schedule for a reason. It gives us an opportunity to win a match like this.”

With the third set tied at 24, senior Courtney Hansen came up with two timely kills, ending the match with a slam into the middle of the court.

Fisher struggled to describe the feeling of leading Faith Lutheran to its first state crown.

“Whether it’s the first or the 10th, it’s a special feeling,” she said. “All the hard work really paid off.”

Megan Panikkar had 15 assists for the Crusaders. Megan Kronschnabel added 10 assists, Morgan Hill made eight blocks, Casey Leonard had six blocks and Hansen made 11 digs.

Madi Foley led Dayton with 12 kills and a block, and Ashley Vickers had eight kills, three aces and a block.

Pahranagat Valley girls volleyball coach Ginger Whipple is no stranger to championships.

That doesn’t mean the longtime coach didn’t appreciate her team’s performance Saturday.

The Panthers defeated Smith Valley 25-23, 23-25, 25-15, 25-12 at Green Valley to win the Division IV state title. It’s the 16th state championship for Whipple, who has been coaching the Panthers since 1980.

“I’m extra proud of my girls,” she said. “Every one is special to me, every state is special. It’s like getting it for the first time.”

Pahranagat Valley (30-2) didn’t lose to a Division IV team all season. The Panthers’ two defeats came against Division III state semifinalist Calvary Chapel.

“It is impressive,” Whipple said. “To look at them warm up, you wouldn’t see that. These girls have a lot of grit and have stayed up. They don’t give up on themselves.”

Pahranagat Valley doesn’t have much size. The Panthers feature a 5-foot-6-inch middle blocker, but the team is able to overcome its lack of height.

“I’ve told them forever that size doesn’t matter,” Whipple said. “I’m super proud of these girls. They’re so small, and for them to overcome that height issue, I’m just really proud of them.”

The Panthers got off to a strong start in the first set. Kennedy Huntsman delivered an ace to start a 3-0 streak. The rest of the set featured eight ties.

The Bulldogs rallied to win the second set after trailing 23-21. They finished on a 4-0 run after three Panthers errors and a block by Kellie Rogaczewski.

Rogaczewski finished with nine kills and nine blocks for Smith Valley (22-10), which got seven kills, 16 digs and two blocks from Katie Ladd.

After dropping the second set, Pahranagat Valley won the next two convincingly on the shoulders of seniors Huntsman (29 assists, seven aces), Traci Strong (16 kills, 13 digs, three aces) and Bailee Hosier (11 kills, 16 digs, two aces).

“We made a lot of hitting errors tonight, but we weathered that storm,” Whipple said. “The seniors still led and didn’t get down on themselves. They brought the team with them.

“Those three girls have carried the team (all year).”

Huntsman said: “It’s my last year, so it meant a lot more. I felt we, as seniors, had to carry the team. I am thrilled, so excited.”

Smith Valley lost in the state semifinals last year, a fact not lost on coach Ally Sceirine after Saturday’s defeat.

“They’ve come a long way,” Sceirine said. “I just told them to not cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened. They never quit trying. They played hard and left it all out on the court. As far as our school goes, this is a huge deal.”

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