CASPER – Eight points was all Cheyenne East needed.
The Lady Thunderbirds dominated Thunder Basin through the opening two sets of Friday’s Class 4A semifinal and took a 2-0 lead deep into the third set.
East’s offense was rolling. Its defense was diving for digs and coming up with momentum-swinging plays.
But when the Lady Bolts rallied to win the third set, the match changed for good. The unthinkable happened later: The Bolts jolted the T-Birds in the third and fourth sets before slamming the door in the fifth to pull off a remarkable 19-25, 19-25, 25-21, 25-15, 15-4 victory to advance to today’s 4 p.m. state final against Casper Kelly Walsh.
“We’re in the state championship!” Thunder Basin (29-7) coach Wenett Martin shouted moments after the final point was clinched. “We were down 2-0 and came back. I mean, amazing play.
“We wanted this one. That was on hell of a match. I don’t think anybody can say any different.”
Unless you’re on the other side, that is.
As the Bolts stormed the court in full-on celebration mode, the T-Birds were left in utter shock and unwilling to come to terms with what just transpired.
“It’s not fun,” East (29-7) coach Nicole Quigley said. “They came out with a lot of fire and passion, and we were up two games and we struggled for a little bit. We just did out-of-system things that we don’t normally do and (committed) unforced errors that we didn’t do in the first two sets.
“It’s a hard thing to do when you get down and be able to reset and move on and still be able to keep the momentum of the first two sets.”
East takes on Star Valley (34-6) at 9 a.m. today in an elimination match. If it wins that match, it will play for third place at 2 p.m.
For a while, it looked like Friday’s semifinal matchup was going to be over in a matter of minutes. East was that dominant.
Junior Hailey Marshall handed her club a 1-0 lead in the match with a kill and then an ace serve on back-to-back plays. She finished with a team-best 13 kills and added 10 digs.
The T-Birds trailed 12-8 in the second set, but they strung together quite the rally which ultimately turned into a lead. Marshall slammed home another kill to give her team a 16-15 advantage. East eventually flew ahead 20-17 after a double block from sophomore Kiera Walsh and freshman Elysiana Fonseca before Thunder Basin called a timeout. Marshall moved her team within 25 points of a victory with consecutive aces to end the second set.
Down 2-0, the Bolts did everything but panic. Despite trailing the T-Birds 17-16 in the third set, the Bolts remained committed to their game plan and stayed calm.
“Obviously, stress levels go up really high, but we really focused on going one point at a time,” said senior Rigan McInerney, who finished with a team-high 13 kills and added 17 digs. “We had a bigger picture too far ahead of us inside our heads, and so when we went one (point) at a time, it went a lot better for us.”
Then, as soon as Thunder Basin grabbed the third set, momentum had shifted.
“When we won that set, I think (East) tensed up,” McInerney added. “We were able to play more less stressed, more relaxed and then from there it was better for us.”
East was more than capable of closing out the match. After all, it had three chances to do so. Thunder Basin remained in a “must-win” mode.
The T-Birds weren’t able to hold on.
They quickly fell behind 6-2 early in the fourth set, and the deficit grew from 17-11 to 22-14 before the match was, all of the sudden, tied at two sets apiece.
“We knew whether we were down one or two, we could come back and win (those) next three,” Martin added. “We talked about that in our huddle. The kids, they didn’t let anything frazzle them. They took it point by point and they just kept going.”
The fifth and decisive set was anything but kind to the T-Birds, who were blitzed to the tune of an 8-2 hole before they could settle in.
A once promising match with what seemed like a favorable outcome was quickly turned upside down for East.
“We battled against ourselves those last two sets,” Quigley said. “You can never start a (set down) 5-0. It’s one of the toughest things to put pressure on yourself to make it come back and play from behind. That’s never easy and never a good situation to be in.”