This Bennett volleyball team is forging its own path, taking footsteps where no Tiger has ever been before.
The 2017 Tigers fought and clawed their way to a regional championship last weekend, coming back to win a tiebreaker after dropping their first match. It clinched a berth to this weekend's Class 3A state volleyball tournament — the first-ever trip to state for the program.
"People had been telling me that they didn't think they'd ever gone before, which made me a little nervous because we hadn't even played the regional yet," said Bennett coach Larry Deffenbaugh, who is also the school's athletic director. "Since we hadn't ever gone before, I figured, well, maybe the odds are improving.
"I've talked to Board members, I've looked through all the yearbooks, I talked to the former athletic director," Deffenbaugh continued. "There is no record of us ever going to state; not a trophy, not a plaque."
Bennett entered the regional round as the No. 9 seed following a 19-4 regular season. But the Tigers dropped their first match of the regional, which they were hosting, to No. 28 Cedaredge, 3-2 (25-21, 19-25, 25-16, 9-25, 16-14). Their dreams of state seemed to be dashed.
"We just struggled, and I think we were uptight, and we wanted to go (to state) so bad, and we were nervous," Deffenbaugh said. "I take nothing away from Cedaredge, they were good."
But then No. 16 Eagle Ridge Academy beat Cedaredge in the second match of the region, meaning that if Bennett beat Eagle Ridge the three teams would be in a tiebreaking scenario.
Bennett followed through with a sweep of Eagle Ridge, 25-22, 25-21, 25-13.
"To catch a break and have Eagle Ridge beat Cedaredge, it gave us new life," Deffenbaugh said. "We played some of our best ball of the year the rest of the day."
In the tiebreak, Eagle Ridge and Cedaredge played first because Bennett had won a higher percentage of sets. Eagle Ridge beat Cedaredge, 25-21.
Once again, Bennett had to beat Eagle Ridge. Only this time, if the Tigers won, they would do something no other team from Bennett had ever done in the 42-year history of the sport.
They won, 25-13.
"I've never seen a group of girls so excited," Deffenbaugh said. "They literally jumped three feet in the air."
The Tigers have been led by a mix of experience and youth throughout the season. That continued during regionals.
Nakita Swingle had 33 kills and 44 digs in the nine sets the Tigers played last Saturday, Olivia Bonstead added 33 kills, and Isabelle Babi had 63 digs. All three girls are seniors.
Freshman Karissa Alsdorf had 44 assists and 24 digs during regionals, and had four aces in the tiebreaker. Sophomore Raena Schledwitz had 45 assists and 25 digs throughout the day.
Now, Bennett will head to the Denver Coliseum on Friday for their first matches. They are the No. 7 seed at state, in a pool with No. 2 Lutheran and No. 11 Sterling.
"They've been to the Coliseum, they know what it looks like," Deffenbaugh said. "They're going to have to handle it like anybody else, and we're hoping that we perform well.
"I just hope that they take in the whole experience, from getting off the bus and going in the gate entrance, to walking underneath the Coliseum and up the stairs and out into the arena, and just soak in that arena, and just really relish the moment and take it all in even before we play," the coach added. "Just really try and gather those memories in — and get some pictures! I mean, gosh, what do we have this technology for?"
As for their pool opponents, Lutheran and Sterling?
"Lutheran and Sterling are two very good teams steeped in tradition," Deffenbaugh said. "We're clearly the underdog, but we're going to go out there and try not to be overwhelmed by the new scenery."