DENVER — Coming into Saturday's Class 4A state title game, the Lewis-Palmer Rangers had only dropped four sets on the year. In what should be their toughest game of the year, they lost their fifth, but overcame a tough Ponderosa Mustangs team to repeat as state champions.
The Rangers won the match 3-1 (25-22, 15-25, 25-22, 25-12) to give coach Susan Odenbaugh and her team and undefeated season their second consecutive state championship.
"To go undeafeated in Colorado in 4A as tough as it is and as many 5A opponents that we had is a major accomplishment for these girls," Odenbaugh said. "Ponderosa is the toughest team we've played. We were hitting the ball and they were getting it up defensively."
The title win gives the Rangers a 35-match winning streak dating to back to last season.
It also begs the question as to whether or not this is the best volleyball team the state of Colorado has ever seen. Led once again by senior Alexa Smith, the Rangers dropped only five sets to the 83 that they won through the course of the season.
Smith started the match with a kill, hoping to set the tone early. The Rangers built their lead in the first set by relying on their senior hitting combination of Smith and Nicole Montgomery.
The Mustangs were able to slowly battle back, ultimately dropping the first set by a tight score of 25-22. Knowing they could hang with Lewis-Palmer, Mustangs coach Rob Graham encouraged his team to keep fighting and try to take Smith out of the next set as much as possible.
"We thought we could compete with them," Graham said. "In game one when we came out and hung with them I think our girls realized they could win a game."
The Mustangs responded by taking a quick 8-0 lead in the second set, putting the Rangers on their heels. Smith tried to bring her team back into the set with three big kills, but she couldn't counter the hitting of Ponderosa's Allison Smith. The Mustang hitter recorded five kills down the stretch as Pondersoa gave the Rangers what Graham called "the worst beating (Lewis-Palmer) had ever had."
The Mustangs continued to ride the momentum of their second set win and continued to attack the Rangers. They found themselves up 10-7 and refused to let Lewis-Palmer get comfortable in their game. With the score sitting at 22-22, Michaela Putnicki slammed two quick kills to give the Rangers a 24-22 lead, at which point Alexa Smith ended the set, gently floating the ball just over the head of the Mustangs' front line.
Now up 2-1, and back on solid ground, the Rangers came out in the fourth set playing the way they had earned them an undefeated record going into the title game. Smith begged her teammates to feed her the ball as she wanted to put the game on her back and walk away victorious.
"We figured things out and we made a few changes and that seemed to work," the Purdue commit said. "I wouldn't have it any other way. I was telling Mariah (Evans) 'send me this, send me that' and I can trust that she'll either set me up, or if I draw the block to get it to someone else."
Holding a 15-11 lead in the fourth set, the Rangers connected on eight straight points, giving them a 23-11 lead and draining the hope out of the Mustangs. Up 24-12 with match point at stake, a tandem block by Montgomery and Elziabeth Reich gave the Rangers the right to be called champions once more.
"I feel like this (title) is a lot cooler because we went undefeated this year," Montgomery said. "It's just an unbelievable feeling."
Odenbaugh explained after the win that prior to the start of each season, the players get together for team building and as part of it, set goals for the year. With expectations at an all-time high coming off a state championship win, the Rangers decided to shoot for the moon and take aim at an undefeated year.
"We didn't let anyone know," Odenbaugh said. "But we knew that we had the potential to do that if we stayed together as a team and we worked hard. It's nice to see a group of young girls give everything they can, pursue a goal and walk out successful."