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RIO RANCHO – Just when it looked like things were over, they were just getting started.
After falling down 2-0 to its arch-rival, St. Pius X, including taking an ugly second set loss, the Los Alamos Hilltopper volleyball team rallied in sets three and four to send Friday evening’s match to a deciding contest.
Unfortunately, the Sartans got up on the Hilltoppers early in the fifth set and never relinquished the lead. The Sartans took a 25-23, 25-14, 19-25, 20-25, 15-9 victory in the semifinal round of the Class 4A state tournament at Santa Ana Star Center.
It was the fourth consecutive year the Hilltoppers fell to the Sartans at the Star Center and the second straight year the Sartans dropped the Hilltoppers in the semifinal round.
St. Pius went on to face Artesia in the Class 4A championship match Saturday morning, with Artesia’s Bulldogs prevailing 3-1. It was the second year in a row the Bulldogs topped the Sartans for the 4A crown.
To overcome St. Pius, Los Alamos knew it would also have to overcome a potential mental stumbling block with St. Pius.
“The first two games, we played timid and afraid,” Hilltopper head coach Garry Maskaly said. “We made too many mistakes. Then we started playing our game and we started hitting hard. In Game 5, we had too many mental lapses.”
Los Alamos could take some solace Friday that it was able to force a fifth set after dropping the first two, particularly the second set, in which it never got anything going.
In the second set, Los Alamos never led. It tied the score at 7-7, but St. Pius scored four of the next five points to take control. Los Alamos had six unforced errors in the set, while St. Pius middle hitter Sara Weber got hot, connecting on six spike kills.
The Hilltoppers appeared to be reeling after the second set and into the third, after the Sartans scored five straight points to take a 5-3 lead.
When they needed her, however, the Hilltoppers got a big boost from their star, senior Chase Ealey.
Ealey caught fire in the third set, crushing spike after spike from the outside. Even the Sartans rotating over to try to put extra blockers and defenders didn’t help, as she piled up seven spike kills in the third set alone.
She had a spike kill, while setter Savanah Romero stuffed Sartan outside hitter Lexi Biondi during Danielle Ortiz’s service run which Los Alamos used to take control of the set. Ortiz, a junior libero who was Los Alamos’ most effective server for most of the season, scored five straight points as the Hilltoppers went up 19-13 at that point.
Ealey kept her hot streak going in game four, adding another seven spike kills, and even throwing in a pair of tip kills for good measure.
Los Alamos led much of the way in the fourth set but never by more than two points until later on.
Ealey had two spike kills to put Los Alamos within a point of closing out the set, then hit the Sartans with a dink that fell harmlessly to the floor, setting up the decisive fifth set.
However, the Hilltoppers would never lead in the final set. The Sartans jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead and would move out to as much as a 7-point edge late, while the Hilltoppers would never recover.
Maskaly said his team always seems to play tight against St. Pius, but is hoping to rectify that in 2012, when he has the Sartans on the regular season schedule — the teams haven’t played each other in the regular season since 2009.
Los Alamos finishes 2011 with a record of 19-4. St. Pius was just the third team the Hilltoppers fell to this season.
The Hilltoppers advanced to the semifinal after sweeping both their pool play opponents — Moriarty and Gallup — and knocking off Piedra Vista 3-1 in the quarterfinals Friday morning. Rendon had 12 spike kills for Los Alamos in the quarterfinal win.
The loss ended the prep volleyball careers of Rendon and Ealey, as well as Carli Downs — who had four block kills against St. Pius — and Mariah Zerr.