DENVER — Just seven points away from claiming its first state volleyball championship, Cherokee Trail took a collective deep breath Saturday night as it broke from a timeout.
The calming effect worked to perfection. The Cougars closed out the Class 5A state title match by scoring seven of the final 10 points to take a 25-23, 25-20, 25-19 victory over Fairview to come away with the crown at the Denver Coliseum.
“We’ve kind of been doing that for awhile. I don’t know how it started,” said Cougars senior Shannon Webb, who put the match away with a decisive kill. “We let all of the emotion out. You calm down and you let it all out.”
Cherokee Trail (25-4) capped a whirlwind day for the 5A field and an emotional season overall with its first trophy. The Cougars overcame the passing of teammate Celeste James before the season began, along with the loss of middle blocker Amazing Ashby to an injury in September, and pulled together when it mattered most.
“These girls fought for every point in every match that they played this season,” Cougars coach Terry Miller said. “They’ve earned every single game that they played, and I can’t be more proud. It means the whole world to these girls, and they’re going to remember this season for the rest of their lives.”
After two of the four 5A pools went to tiebreakers, the 5A semifinals were the last matches to be played before the finals began one hour later than scheduled. Cherokee Trail, which had been idle all day after winning two matches Friday, defeated Denver East in three sets while Fairview downed Rock Canyon in four sets.
The Knights (22-7) opened the day with a five-set loss to Coronado, but won a single-set tiebreaker over Coronado later to advance to the semis.
“They just do not quit. We played 13 sets today,” Fairview coach Kelsey Spencer said. “They fought every point of every play. I am so impressed with the tenacity, work ethic and team chemistry.”
Cherokee Trail jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead in the first set, then withstood a furious rally from the Knights. Fairview got to within one point at match point, but Cherokee Trail’s Kenzie Hendon put the set away with a kill.
The Cougars rallied from a five-point deficit in the second set, going on a 13-5 run to take command. Hendon again put the set away.
“There were times when I was a little afraid of what was going on,” Miller said. “Fairview had us on our heels when it comes down to the tips, but we made some adjustments on it and were able to neutralize that a little bit more than I think they wanted.”
The two teams went back-and-forth in the final set, but an 8-3 run down the stretch sealed the match for Cherokee Trail. Webb’s thunderous kill was the deciding point.
“That was my last high school swing ever,” Webb said. “After the season we’ve had, to put that away for my team and for my school, it’s pretty awesome.”
For the three seniors who were on the court Saturday night, going out with a state championship meant everything after all that had been endured this fall.
“We’ve seen each other at our most vulnerable, which is pretty powerful,” Webb said. “We rebuilt together, so there’s a really strong bond of trust.”
Fairview will graduate six seniors off a team that made an impressive run through the state tournament as the No. 8 overall seed. The Knights defeated No. 1 overall seed Chatfield on Friday night.
“Now they’ve got a taste and they know what it feels like,” Spencer said.
Webb said the moment was exciting but surreal. The senior is headed to American University next year, and going out on top is a moment she and her teammates will forever cherish.
“These are the lessons that they’re going to carry on for the rest of their lives,” Miller said. “It’s not all about volleyball for us this year, but life lessons and being able to persevere through any challenges that were thrown your way.
“Celeste was looking out for us this season.”