DENVER — Fossil Ridge senior Lauren Rice remembers her first year in high school when the Sabercats' varsity volleyball team went to state and got completely destroyed in three games on the first day.
Despite getting handled, Rice said that year's setter started singing the song "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" as loudly as she could, and it cheered people up on the team up, thus becoming a program tradition.
"So no matter win or lose, we sing it to prove we are who we are, and it’s going to go on," Rice said.
As the 2016 volleyball season comes to a close, Fossil Ridge's five seniors will be able to sing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" one last time on the bus in the parking lot — and this time, as state champions.
Class 5A's No. 1-seeded Fossil Ridge volleyball team defeated No. 6-seeded Mountain Vista in five epic sets (25-21, 19-25, 22-25, 25-19, 15-10) in the state tournament final on Saturday night at the Denver Coliseum to claim the program's first-ever volleyball state championship.
The Sabercats capped the memorable season 26-3 under coach Paul Shimek, and they did all all "for each other" — a team motto since the first day of practice.
"All season we’ve been coming out of practices and locker breaks saying, 'for each other,'" sophomore outside hitter Riley Zuhn said. "We're best friends and that’s why we won. Our team chemistry is like none other and this is the best team I’ve ever been on."
From the beginning, it was going to be a tough state final match for both the Sabercats and Golden Eagles (23-7): two programs that had never been to a volleyball championship game before and were very evenly matched in the final.
But the Sabercats didn't quit, despite being down multiple times during the five-set match, including a 2-1 set deficit to Vista. In tough positions, they played together to power through and persevere.
Fossil Ridge took the neck-and-neck first, fourth and fifth sets. Rice, the libero, started out making good digs and crucial defensive plays, which helped the Sabercats combat Vista's tough-as-nails hitters, including senior outside Alyssa Oswald.
"Our defense kept digging balls, even though we had a little stretch of a problem with that earlier," Shimek said. "But they finished it up with some nice digs."
But the Sabercats' hitters were also on fire as well, and started really making things tough for the Golden Eagles to get anything over the net in the latter sets.
Fossil Ridge would start the championships sets off with momentum and distancing itself in the lead, but Vista always crept back to make it close.
"This was a team that knew how to compete," Shimek said. "The girls stepped it up whenever they got down and we got into the same kind of thing with Cheyenne Mountain and it was a fantastic, and we came back and beat Chaparral. They never quit on anything."
Zuhn had a stellar game on the net for the Sabercats and was a force to be reckoned with. Junior setter Tyler Lindgren also really stepped up for the Sabercats to run the offense.
Fossil Ridge came into the tournament ranked No. 1, and decided it was time to prove to people they were actually the No. 1 team — for each other.
"We came in ranked first and I think a lot of people expected us to win and when all these amazing teams were playing us and doing really well, it shocked everyone and I think especially today we felt a sense of urgency that we are No. 1 and it’s time for us to prove it,' Rice said. "We had a lot of fun at state — it was all of our of first times, and a lot of our last times."
She added: "I think because people want us to win more or less for the popularity or just to say we won 5A, but we decided were playing for the girls to the left of us."