PILOT ROCK — When the tournament smoke cleared in Pilot Rock, it wasn’t the regular-season titan Weston-McEwen standing above the rest, but the streaking Heppner Mustangs.
The Mustangs (18-11, 9-5 BMC) beat the two top teams in the Blue Mountain Conference District Tournament on Saturday to seize the top seed from the conference heading into the state tournament. Heppner took down Elgin (20-9, 12-2 BMC) in the first game of the day (25-18, 25-15, 26-24) to advance to the championship match where they did the same to the TigerScots (23-7, 13-1 BMC).
Heppner — winners of seven straight matches while moving from district-tournament bubble team to state tournament contender — dethroned the winners of last year’s tournament in four sets 25-21, 18-25, 31-29 and 25-20.
“The last few weeks have been very stressful, trying to prepare for this exact day,” said Carrie Haguewood, Heppner’s senior middle blocker who had 16 kills in the championship match. “We really knew we could get into the playoffs. We just had to believe it.
“Now we know how we can play and we just have to keep playing like that because we’re winning like that.”
The top four in the conference each rank in the state’s top 11 teams from Class 2A. The all-around strength of the conference schedules should serve the teams well against the state’s best in the playoffs, Union coach Mendy Clark said.
“All year long we’ve been fighting,” Clark said. “You try to win and not just play to not lose.”
In the championship match, Heppner set the pace from the get-go by taking the first set. Getting ahead early forced Weston-McEwen to play with more urgency and swayed their game. After the TigerScots tied the match at 1-1, the third set was the turning point.
The Mustangs took big leads of 17-8 and later 24-21 before the TigerScots battled back to move the game into extra points. The teams ping-ponged back and forth, never gaining the two-point margin for victory until freshman Kelly Wilson stepped up to serve with the set tied 29-29. Wilson played in reserve duty for most of the match but became the hero — at least of the set — by serving up two aces to clinch.
“I was really scared but I just tried to serve,” Wilson said, adding that she’d never been in a pressure situation quite like that on a volleyball court.
Heppner used an aggressive service campaign to rack up 18 aces, but also 12 service errors. Four separate players had three aces or more.
The rally third set wasn’t a crippling blow to Weston-McEwen, coach Shawn White said, but it trimmed the team’s margin for error to practical nil.
“We were down so much of that set and had to make a comeback,” White said. “It’s hard to get over that hump when you had to come from so far back and you’re trading, trading, trading. We just couldn’t quite get that final point that we needed and sometimes that happens.”
Morgan Entze was the rock in the middle of Weston-McEwen’s lineup. The senior hitter had 10 kills while serving a perfect 26-for-26 and was named the Blue Mountain Conference’s co-player of the year after the match with Elgin’s Lauren Sauers.
Molly von Borstel added 11 kills and Katy West had three blocks for Heppner.
The Mustang’s underdog run to the top isn’t finished yet, coach Pam Dowdy said. They changed as a team in the last few weeks but their goals from the beginning of the season never did.
“It’s so important to be playing your best ball at the end of the season, focusing on the little things and outlasting your opponents,” Dowdy said.
“We made a commitment to success this season from the moment we went to team camp ... So no, we’re not surprised at where we’re at. We didn’t expect it but we worked toward it.”