Falcons split matches in first round of district volleyball tournament | UPDATE

LYNDEN — Two different volleyball teams represented South Whidbey in the Northwest District 1 tournament Wednesday night.

They had identical uniforms, strategies, cheers, coaches and fans.

They also had the same players. And that’s what was strange about a 3-0 loss to Burlington-Edison following a 3-2 win against the host team Lynden.

They were the same group of Falcon girls playing noticeably different from the first match to the second that it just appeared like a different team. Falcon head coach Mandy Jones nearly substituted the entire court against Burlington-Edison in the first set.

“We just rolled over; we didn’t even try,” Jones said. “We went out there already defeated in our heads. I wanted to put everybody that was on the bench out on the court, but then I looked over at the bench and they’re all sitting there with mopy faces.”

SWHS vs. Lynden

Most of the Falcons were there one year ago. Seven Falcons were on the team that lost in the district tournament play-in game against Mount Baker 3-1.

That was the 2010 Falcons.

This is the 2011 team that finished in third place overall and second in the 2A division behind Archbishop Murphy.

The Lynden Lions (10-3 Northwest Conference, 11-5 overall) had aspirations to return to the state tournament. South Whidbey, the Cascade Conference’s second-ranked team, is also on the quest for a state tournament berth.

The Falcons (9-5, 10-6 overall) made a great stride in the state direction by beating Lynden in five sets 25-23, 22-25, 25-16, 23-25 and 15-7.

Playing a five-set match was common for South Whidbey this season. Going into the match against Lynden, the Falcons played in six full-set matches, and Wednesday was the seventh time. Reasons for how and why South Whidbey plays five-set matches so often remained a mystery to the Falcons.

“We do it every time,” said junior hitter Hannah Calderwood. “I just don’t know.”

Conversely, a rare occurrence for the Falcons is winning the first set. Lynden, which did not have a noticeable home-crowd advantage, looked like it would extend South Whidbey’s first set woes.

The Lions and the Falcons tied and only led by one point through the first 25 points. That was until Falcon sophomore Mackenzie Hezel scored a kill for a 14-12 lead (she finished with five).

The Falcons extended their lead to at 18-13 after an ace by Linden Firethorne, who led the match with 26 kills, five blocks and two aces — the largest lead either team had in the opening set.

Errors by the Falcons chipped into their lead, and the Lions pounced on the momentum change. There was a double hit penalty by the Falcons, a kill by Falcon senior Jessica Manca, a kill by Lion senior Carrie Starbuck, consecutive Falcon hitting errors, which were capped by an ace from Lion junior Brooke Bonsen. Suddenly, the lead was down to one point for the Falcons, 19-18. Jones called a timeout. Out of the break Falcon sophomore setter Meagan Longdon (22 assists, 12 digs and three aces) lofted a high set to Calderwood at the middle of the net for one of her 11 kills, a season high for the junior.

“Mandy’s a great coach,” Calderwood said. “She knows where to put us so we can confuse the other team.”

Kills from Hezel and Firethorne, an ace by senior libero Brittany Wood and two Lion errors finished the set.

South Whidbey lost the lead late in the second set, despite leading 18-15. A couple of Falcon errors, coupled with Lion kills by sophomore hitter Stephanie Somers tied the score 19-19.

The Lions took the lead on an ace by Somers at 22-21, extended it to 23-21 on another Somers ace before Falcon errors lost the set 25-22. Somers had four kills and three aces in the second set.

The roller coaster continued for the Falcons in the third set. For South Whidbey’s failure to finish the previous set despite a late lead, the Falcons cruised in the third set thanks to a late push.

The Lions and Falcons traded the lead eight times, until the Falcons took the lead at 16-15 on a shallow tip pass by Molly Rawls. At the net, Rawls scored points by swinging the ball hard from left to right about an inch over the net as the blockers bit on her kill motion or faking the set to Firethorne.

“I was pleased to see (Rawls) being smart with the ball and doing what we’ve been practicing,” Jones said. “I was happy that she got her kills.”

Calderwood and Rawls, who finished with five kills, combined for five of the final nine points. Longdon scored three consecutive aces during the 9-to-1 point run.

“I knew that we had to set everybody and mix it up so it wasn’t just Linden,” said Falcon senior setter Emily Houck, who totaled 24 assists, two kills and two aces.

Letdown returned in the fourth set, even though the Falcons led 2-1. The Lions had their largest lead of the match at six points late in the set, leading 22-16 after an ace from Somers.

A kill by Wood, then an ace by Wood and a kill by Firethorne cut the lead to three points when Lion coach Angie Dallas called a timeout. During the break, South Whidbey’s section of fans, six strong, stomped, clapped and chanted, “Feed the beast,” following Firethorne’s kill.

Call those six Falcon girls prophets — out of the timeout, Firethorne scored a tip pass and block to cut the Lions’ lead to one point, 22-21.

“We knew we could beat them, we knew that we were better than them,” Houck said.

The short rally ended on a hitting error by Houck. The Lions relied on their veteran Starbuck to finish the set with two kills, winning 25-23 and forcing a fifth set.

Playing a fifth set was almost commonplace for the Falcons. This was, after all, their seventh full-set match, and the experience showed as the Falcons led early.

South Whidbey opened the fifth set on a three-point run. The Falcons extended their lead to 10-5 before going on a 5-to-2 run on kills by Calderwood and Firethorne and digs and aces by Justina Mackie-Timmerman and senior libero Brittany Wood, who had 23 digs, six aces, four kills.

Calderwood hit with vigor, finding the deep kills that previously sailed out of bounds, which she said was inspired by her teammates.

“Before the game, I just kind of looked around at the seniors and I thought, ‘This is the last chance I’m going to have to play with them,’” she said. “I just wanted to give them what they wanted, and I needed to hit hard and create some points so they can go to state their senior year.”

With a district playoff win, the Falcons moved one win away from a guaranteed berth to the 2A state tournament.

SWHS vs. B-E

For the Falcon coaches, the roller coaster that is watching South Whidbey volleyball was unnerving.

After an almost two-hour match, the Falcons had eight minutes to rest before warmups. Lack of rest showed as the Falcons were overwhelmed by the Burlington-Edison Tigers in a three-set sweep, 25-11, 25-19, 25-10.

“I really don’t understand why we just came out here and gave it to Burlington-Edison,” she added.

Burlington-Edison, the only undefeated team and the tournament favorite, scored 22 points before South Whidbey hit double digits.

Of the 11 points the Falcons scored, only five were won; six were from Tigers’ errors.

“I think we were tired, and then people were just like, ‘Oh we’re tired and it’s going to be a hard game. We don’t have to win it, we still have another chance,’” Firethorne said.

She said the Falcons may have taken themselves out of the match mentally, and allowed themselves to be intimidated by the Tigers’ status.

“I think it was just the fact that we knew too much about them,” Firethorne said. “We knew that they were ranked first in state, and they’re obviously really good and I think we let that get us a little too much.”

The Tigers had a simple defensive strategy: avoid letting the Falcons set Firethorne. She scored two kills in the first set, and only 11 in the match against Burlington-Edison.

“Our key was trying to put them out of system so they weren’t able to get the ball to number seven (Firethorne),” said Tiger head coach Tawnya Brewer.

“That was our goal from the beginning. I think we did a nice job of doing that because they’re a tough team. Seven’s a good hitter so they weren’t able to get her the ball as much as they’re used to,” she said.

South Whidbey regrouped in the second set. The Tigers took a commanding 23-11 lead until a Firethorne kill ended it.

Hitting errors compounded on the Tigers to cut the lead to 24-15 when Longdon scored an ace and Calderwood scored two blocks, further reducing the Tigers’ lead to 24-18.

A kill by the Tigers’ shortest player, senior setter Kaitlyn Mataya, ended the set 25-19.

South Whidbey tried several lineups, including playing freshman Anne Madsen and junior Hayley Newman, who saw limited playing time against Lynden. The Falcon statistics were low: Houck had eight assists and four digs and Longdon added six assists and six digs to Firethorne’s 11 kills and two blocks.

“This year is so up and down,” Jones said. “As soon as one girl gets down on herself it just shows. And they already wear their emotions on their sleeves, for them to pull out of it is just so hard.”

There was one highlight for Jones — the effort and fight Mackie-Timmerman had against the Tigers.

“Justina Mackie was playing her butt off,” Jones said. “She was passing the ball and digging the ball. She has the ability to bring up the energy out on the court, and that’s one of the roles that I told her that she’s good at and that I need her for.”

The third set was reminiscent of the Falcons’ matches against the King’s Knights earlier this season. Once the Falcons were down, they couldn’t get back in the game against a top-ranked team. The Tigers cruised to a 25-10 win.

Similarities between King’s and Burlington-Edison were noticeable to South Whidbey’s coach.

“They’re just fast,” Jones said of the Tigers. “Their setter’s fast and amazing; their passing is fast; their hitting is fast. I’d love to see them play King’s because I think they’re pretty much the same.”

One of the Tigers’ strengths is, on paper, a weakness. Burlington-Edison has only eight players on its roster, compared to the 12- or 13-player rosters most teams had Wednesday, or the 14 that are allowed.

“They pride themselves on being, probably, in the best shape just because we only have eight players so they’re always used to getting lots of reps,” Brewer said. “I like small rosters because you can’t get lost with eight. Everyone’s held accountable all the time in practice. There’s no hiding behind anyone.”

The Tigers are one win away from securing the district’s top seed for the state tournament at Evergreen State College in Olympia next week. Returning to the district championship match was the Tigers’ goal this season.

“Hopefully we’re playing Anacortes because we want to have another chance at them because we lost in districts last year to them,” Brewer said.

Burlington-Edison got its wish, as Anacortes beat Lakewood and Sehome 3-0 to advance to the championship match today.

South Whidbey is also one victory away from going to the state tournament. The Falcons, however, are also one loss away from elimination. Saturday will be the third time the Falcons played the Wildcats this season, which the Wildcats won both times 3-1.

Jones said the team’s practice on Thursday would be spent watching film from the matches against Lynden and Burlington-Edison.

Beyond that, she wanted to see what her players learned from it before tailoring a workout plan for Friday.

For the Falcon seniors, the match is a must-win, and one lesson Firethorne hopes the team learned is to ignore the opponent’s stature.

“We just know we have to really play hard and focus and not freak out about whatever team we’re playing,” she said.

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