Cactus comes up aces against Ironwood

Cactus' Soleil Gandara (#3) sets the ball for a teammate against Ironwood on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 at Cactus High School in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Fittingly, Soleil Gandara served an ace on the first and final points of Cactus’ volleyball victory against Ironwood Tuesday night.

The Cobras had the better of it for the bulk of the match between district rivals from different conferences. But when she stepped behind the service line the gap between the two teams grew immensely.

In the 25-12, 25-13, 18-25, 25-18 Cactus win, the senior setter served nine aces. In the first game alone, the Cobras scored 16 points while she was serving.

More than raw numbers, the team just seems to play at a higher lever behind her lasers — almost as if they don’t want the fun to end.

“I absolutely love that feeling. If we are losing I love being able to serve and get them on their feet,” Gandara said. “I really try to focus on getting everybody back on the positive side.”

When she wasn’t serving points, Gandara was often serving up choice attacking opportunities for senior middle blacker Kaycee O’Dell, senior right side Becca Belles and junior outside hitter Brittnie Henige.

Belles paced all players with 12 kills, O’Dell and Henige each chipped in with nine.

“Kaycee signed with (Montana State University) in the summer,” Puglisi said. “Becca is, I think, the most underrated player in the Valley now. She had the middle and the right side. I still think Soleil is one of the top five setters i the state. You see the girls hit those balls. But those are great sets.”

Cactus (9-4, 5-0 regular season cruised through the first two sets while Ironwood (1-4, 1-3) had massive trouble with its defensive coverage.

Suddenly, after this dominance, the rivalry reverted to its form in recent years. In 2015, the Eagles same back to win the final three games of a five-game thriller. Then the Cobras turned the tables in 2016.

The Eagles made this year’s late match surge. Senior outside hitter Allison Mooney tallied four kills and an ace as the visiting team led throughout game 3.

“They have passion. They’ve got heart. We just need to be able to find it from the beginning,” Ironwood coach Lisa Lopez said. “We’ve been practicing a certain rotation and we  totally changes it up after those first two sets.

Pugilism said he plays more bench players for most of game three. By the time he relied more on his starters in game four, Ironwood was locked in and ready to play the Cobras even.

The Eagles last led 13-12 midway through game four. O’Dell picked up two kills and a block in the next four points to give the Cobras a lead they would not relinquish.

“We got some people some playing time. And then (Ironwood) stepped up their game. It wasn’t all us, it as them. They put it to us,” Puglisi said. “I though, we’re not playing well. It goes to a fifth game, who knows?”

Instead O’Dell helped shut it down.

In 2014, players like O’Dell, Gandara and Belles have played a lot together, both for their school and club teams. This senior core has slowly built to this moment, and the 2017 squad looks like legit 4A challenger.

“I have been playing with almost all of those front tow girls since my freshman year. We started off atrocious,” Gandara said. “But we knew if we worked hard and practiced, we would be better.”

Ironwood’s Camille Price (#4) bumps the ball against Cactus on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 at Cactus High School in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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