Thunder Mountain High School entered the Region V Volleyball Tournament Friday with a level head.
Now, they’re one win away from heading to the state championships for the first time in program history.
The Falcons defeated Juneau-Douglas 3-1 (25-20, 25-10, 16-25, 25-21) late Friday night to advance to Saturday afternoon’s 4A championship game against either JDHS or Ketchikan. The latter two teams square off in an elimination game Saturday morning. The region winner is awarded the lone Southeast berth to next weekend’s state tournament in Anchorage.
“Going into this game, we had a team meeting,” TMHS senior Audrey Welling said. “The first thing we said was don’t expect this game to be over in three (sets) or even four because this is regions and our teams are competing to be able to represent our community. And that’s something a lot bigger than just winning a conference game.”
Welling had six kills and credited junior Tasi Fenumiai (11 kills) for getting the Falcons back on track in the fourth set. Senior Leilani Eshnaur posted a team-high 15 digs, doing her part to neutralize JDHS’ hard-hitting front row of sophomore JoJo Griggs (17 kills), junior Addie Prussing (4 kills) and senior Riley Stadt (4 kills). Stadt also led the team with 23 digs.
After going down by five points in the first set, the Crimson Bears went on a 7-3 run late to take a 19-18 lead. Eshnaur found herself in the crosshairs of a Prussing spike, but managed to keep the play alive and help the Falcons tie the game. Thunder Mountain scored six of the following seven points to win the set.
TMHS continued to roll in the second set, but couldn’t close out the match in the third as Griggs and senior Shaylin Cesar provided a strong one-two punch. Cesar hobbled off the court in the second set with a sprained ankle, but wouldn’t stay down long. She was greeted with loud cheers as she returned to the court to start the third. JDHS led 8-2 right off the bat, and led by two or more points the rest of the way.
“Our team just has a strong mindset,” Cesar said. “We just always tell ourselves to get every ball and we always remind ourselves it’s not over no matter what the score is or the previous games. We’re always motivated to keep going.”
JDHS coach Brandee Gerke said it makes a big difference to have Cesar on the court.
“She’s a big leader out there for us,” Gerke said. “She keeps her teammates accountable. … She keeps the focus of the team out there and keeps encouraging her teammates. You can tell, she wants it. In terms of who really wants it out there, Shay gives it all she’s got.”
JDHS took another early lead in the fourth set, but this time the Falcons wouldn’t be held down. Senior Marissa Tanuvasa-Tuvaifale’s ace tied the game at 6-6 and spurred a 10-3 run to help her team pull away.
JDHS defeated Ketchikan 25-16, 25-13, 25-16 in its first game of the day. The Crimson Bears led almost wire-to-wire and totaled 15 aces.
If JDHS eliminates Ketchikan and beats Thunder Mountain on Saturday, the Crimson Bears will play a 30-point tiebreaker against the Falcons. Cesar said the team isn’t throwing in the towel just yet.
“We’re not going to give up,” she said. “This game is just more motivation to come out stronger tomorrow.”
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or email@example.com. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.