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Volleyball wins district championship with win over Pojoaque

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By Phil Scherer

With a dramatic, five-set, win over the Pojoaque Valley Elkettes Thursday night, the Los Alamos High School volleyball team claimed the District 2-4A regular season championship. The championship assures the team of the No. 1 seed in next week’s district tournament and also guaranteed the Hilltoppers a spot in the state championship tournament. 

It is an achievement that cannot be understated. Last season, LAHS went 7-16 overall and won only one district contest. As late in this season as Sept. 15, the Hilltoppers were 3-7. Then, everything changed. 

From that point forward, LAHS went 9-1 overall and 7-1 in District 2-4A, one of the toughest districts in the state. The only blemish on the team’s record was a loss in mid-October to Pojoaque Valley. On Thursday, the Hilltoppers more than made up for it. 

The fight for the regular season district championship came down to one final match. Both teams were 6-1 in district play. Pojoaque’s lone district loss to that point came against Española Valley, just two days after defeating the Hilltoppers in straight sets in Los Alamos. 

From the outside looking in, the Hilltoppers were the underdog. The team was going up against a 17-2 team that had easily won all three sets in the earlier match. But LAHS didn’t play like an underdog Thursday night. 

“They believed and they never gave up,” LAHS head coach Joe Palmer said. “We played our brand of volleyball and adjusted to a couple things from the last time Pojoaque met us. We covered the tips and played tighter in our base defense.”

It was clear early in the first set that the match would be a battle. For much of the set, neither team led by more than three points, as the rallies were long and the defense was outstanding from every player on the court. 

The Elkettes maintained a small lead throughout much of the first set. On four different occasions, the Hilltoppers tied the score, the latest at 21-21. Pojoaque responded to the challenge every time. The Elkettes closed the set on a 4-0 run to claim the first set 25-21 and go up 1-0 in the match. The confidence on the Hilltopper sideline never wavered, though. 

“The ladies responded,” Palmer said. “They are athletic, they are intelligent and I could not ask for anything better.”

Much of the second set appeared to be a carbon copy of the first set, with the teams trading points and failing to get into any type of consistent rhythm. Much like the first set, Pojoaque held a small lead for much of the set, and the score was tied 21-21. Unlike the first set, though, it was LAHS that took the lead. Elodie Thelliez had an important kill to put LAHS up 22-21 and another to go up 24-21. Though the Elkettes fought back and forced extra points to be played, LAHS came out on top 27-25 as Sophia Salazar slammed the final kill to the ground, evening the match at 1-1. 

Riding the momentum of the second set, the Hilltopeprs played great volleyball in the third set and held a small advantage throughout. Thelliez played great in the set, picking up eight kills, including several at key points. With the score tied 23-23, Salazar stepped up again with two kills in a row to close out the set and put the Hilltoppers up 2-1. 

Pojoaque dominated the fourth set 25-12 to set up a winner-take-all fifth set. The Elkettes took back much of the momentum in the fourth set, with great serving and attacking that took LAHS out of the rhythm of the match. It appeared the Elkettes would carry the momentum into the final set, but the Hilltoppers had other ideas. 

Prior to the final set, Palmer had a simple, yet important message for his team. 

“I said, ‘don’t give up,’” Palmer said. “We ended the (fourth) set better than we started it, and they just got together and pulled themselves together there. They got each other fired up to go back onto the court.”

And in the final set, the girls were indeed fired up. The Hilltoppers took control early and never let up, winning the set 15-9. Thelliez once again stepped up, providing a kill to get the girls the 14th point, and a block to win the set, the match and the district championship. 

Now, the Hilltoppers will have all next week to prepare for the district tournament championship game, which will be 6 p.m. Nov. 10 at Griffith Gymnasium. The team’s opponent will be determined throughout the first three rounds of the tournament. 

“We are going to prepare for anybody,” Palmer said. “I think we have probably the second toughest district in 4A with Española, Pojoaque, they are going to be hungry for it. Moriarty and Taos are fighting hard. We just need to get set and ready to go.”