West Valley Preps
TEMPE – After the match, they celebrated as if they had won the title. And in many ways, the Griffins had.
For Glendale Prep volleyball, getting to the 2A girls state final and bringing home a second place trophy meant that much.
Up against an overwhelming top seed and defending champion in Scottsdale Christian (37-7), the Griffins battled throughout Saturday night’s title game and nearly took a set off the Eagles before falling 25-10, 25-23, 25-14 at Tempe High School.
“I bonded with these girls in a way that I haven’t with any other team I’ve been on – and I’ve been playing a while. To walk away with that bond … I’m a new person and I thank them for that. We got that trophy because of that bond and I appreciate that so much,” senior libero Brittney Shawel said.
Truly in this case, the joy was in the journey. No. 3 seed Glendale Prep (24-10) waited a while for this moment.
The Griffins reached the semifinals in 2013 and the finals in 2014 – their first two years of AIA competition. However, both seasons were spent in the state’s smallest division.
Then Glendale Prep volleyball moved up to the second-smallest division and started battling bigger schools. Eventual 2015 champion Thatcher knocked them out in the second round.
In 2016, eventual 2A champion Phoenix Horizon Honors dispatched the Griffins in the semifinal. Last year, it was Scottsdale Christian knocking off Glendale Prep en route to the title – this time in the semifinals.
That made the finals trip that much sweeter for seniors Hunter Malone, Jessica Vargas and Brittney Shawel.
All three were junior high students at the North Peoria-based prep school the last time the Griffins made the finals.
“This has been one of our dreams for the three seniors. It was our goal to get to the finals and let whatever happens happen. It means so much to see how hard we worked because we have so many odds stacked against us and so many hard games played. We took Veritas and Thatcher to five, and those are very talented teams,” Vargas said.
To do so the program – Shawel and Vargas in particular – had to gain a measure of revenge, beating Thatcher in the 2A semifinal at Arcadia High School in Phoenix, 25-27, 25-19, 25-23, 17-25, 15-13.
Thatcher rallied in the fourth set, taking a 22-10 lead. The Griffins rallied briefly but almost had to reset themselves to compete in the fifth game.
Two aces by sophomore middle blocker Libby Trimble pushed Glendale Prep’s lead to 12-9. And the Griffins extended match point with third defense until the Eagles made a mistake – on a lift.
“We know we have a great offense so most teams prepare for that. We’ve been working on our block and that’s really something that came alive this weekend. I’m really proud of how they’ve stepped up,” Glendale prep coach Jen Roberge said after the Thatcher game. “To get to the finals was the goal and we are going to leave that court with no regrets.”
In Vargas and sophomore Nerin Valasakos, Glendale Prep possesses two powerful outside hitters. But that’s virtually it offensively.
To advance the team has to rely on scrambling defensive effort and mental resilience.
“It’s scary to make mistakes but we were still being aggressive. We were still trusting each other and that’s the most important thing. Sure we have holes in our defense and our block and our hitting. But we trusted each other to get there,” Vargas said. “We were watching a video of the last point of the semifinal and it was such an indescribable feeling because you could see everyone work so hard.”
To even reach Saturday’s matches, the Griffins had to just barely fend off another small school power in the semifinal, squeaking past No. 6 Veritas Prep 16-25, 25-23, 25-27, 25-20, 15-11.
“The strength is in the challenge. There’s little hills, molehills and giant mountains we had to overcome – not only in the teams we faced, but when we forgot we were,” Glendale Prep volleyball coach Jen Roberge said. “When we play teams like Thatcher and SCA we want to give everything we got.”
After Scottsdale Christian – a 2A team ranked No. 8 in the entire state by MaxPreps – dominated the first set, they got all of the Griffins in the second.
The Eagles built leads of 7-4, 15-9 and 23-18 but could not shake the underdogs, thanks to their scrappy nature and a tour de force performance by Vargas.
The one Griffin who could hang with Scottsdale Christian’s devastating quartet of senior Lauren Ohlinger, freshman Laylah Daniel, sophomore Sophia Wadsworth and junior Taylor Raiola, Vargas had seven kills and an ace in the second set.
Valasakos – the future of Glendale Prep volleyball – added five kills, including two set savers when the Griffins trailed 24-20.
They forced Scottsdale Christian to dig a little bit a victory in itself.
“We ticked them off, and that’s a happy thing. We kept playing the same, they picked it up a notch. We know who they are. What we wanted to do is scare them a little bit and that’s exactly what we did,” Roberge said.
As they left the court Saturday night there were tears. That’s to be expected.
But there also was clarity. This team had given all it had, without ever losing its unusually close bond.
“Another special thing about our team is, if I look at other teams, a lot of players blame other players. There’s zero of that on this team. Everybody is so selfless, to the point where we’re willing to give up our bodies, our minds and our whole entire selves to each other. That’s part of the trust we’re talking about,” Malone said.