STANFIELD — The Heppner Mustangs were in a hole. And not just any pothole, something as inconveniencing as a speed bump. The Heppner volleyball team was staring up at a tiny patch of sky from the bottom of a cavernous well.
There was no Lassie to find help on Saturday at the Blue Mountain District Tournament. The only way out for Heppner was through sheer determination.
So the climb began.
By the time Heppner broke its huddle for the decisive fifth game, an eventual 15-9 final in its favor, there was no way the TigerScots could slow down the Mustang machine. Like a snow ball with a full mountain of speed behind it, Heppner was unstoppable.
“Yeah, I knew we were going to win,” said Heppner’s Alana Wilson. “I could feel the confidence in our girls. We were playing at our top level and I knew it was our game.”
With the win, the Mustangs clinched the top seed for the Class 2A state playoffs out of the Blue Mountain Conference. The OSAA’s rankings will freeze Tuesday at midnight before the final brackets are set. Heppner, which ranked first prior to Saturday’s action, will receive a home match for the first round next Saturday.
No. 7 Weston-McEwen will also play at home in Athena that day if its ranking holds. Should the TigerScots drop below eighth, they’ll hit the road for a first-round match.
Heppner, which beat the TigerScots in the final of this tournament last season in Pilot Rock as well, started the 2012 edition of the championship like they’d missed a memo. Saturday was a grueling marathon for the Mustangs, who beat tournament three-seed Union in the opener at noon before coming back to face Weston-McEwen around 6 p.m., and it showed in the early going against the TigerScots.
Thirteen of Weston-McEwen’s points in the first and 10 in the second set came on Heppner errors. BMC co-player of the year Baily Bennett, who shared the honor with Weston-McEwen’s Molly von Borstel, looked particularly off. The senior outside hitter had more hitting errors (nine) than kills (five) in the first two sets.
Coach Pam Dowdy rotated Bennett out to give her some time on the bench, less because of her play though and more for another reason.
“She hasn’t been feeling well but her stomach settled,” Dowdy said. “She’s a winner and a leader so she was going to go out and finish strong as soon as she could.”
Bennett went off for six kills in the third set and four more in the fifth to help Heppner blow this match open. She finished with 18, a team high ahead of the nines that Wilson and Emma Osmin contributed.
“I think it took a lot of energy for us. We had to mentally focus our game back onto the court,” Bennett explained Heppner’s climb back. “We started getting more in sync with the ball. Together. We just came together.”
Weston-McEwen never built a lead larger than three points again — and that came at 3-0 in the fourth set. The TigerScots came close to closing the match out at the end of that game with the match tied up 23-23, but a hitting error and a blocked shot elevated the Mustangs.
The TigerScots’ von Borstel swung like a buzzsaw through the Heppner defense in the games her team took. The junior slammed down six kills apiece in the opening two sets as the Weston-McEwen fan section began echoed her name off the Stanfield gymnasium walls.
But the final three games yielded only seven kills total for her as the TigerScot was stuck in the rotation on the back line and Weston-McEwen struggled to string together long service stretches. Her 19 kills still led the match, most of them set up by Taryn Coffman who finished with 31 assists.
Marlene Bodmer blocked five shots for the TigerScots and McKayla Carlin dug out 37 balls.
The assists for Heppner were well distributed but Kelly Wilson led the team with 15. Maddie Lindsey had a match-high six blocks.
With playoffs the next step for both teams, Weston-McEwen coach Shawn White doesn’t expect his girls to hang their heads for long. An emotional loss on Saturday becomes fuel for the TigerScots’ flames heading forward.
“This is just a building block. If anything, with my kids, you don’t want to play us next,” White said with a heartly laugh. “Trust me. My kids want to be back on the floor right now. This won’t hurt us in any way for next week. If anything, it’ll only motivate them.”
While Heppner and Weston-McEwen occupy the top two spots out of the conference, they’ll be joined by the Union Bobcats (19-8), who beat Grant Union in the third-place match in four sets to earn a ticket to state. Heppner had downed Union 27-25, 19-25, 25-21, 22-25, 15-11 in the first match of the tournament Saturday to advance to the championship.
Heppner was 0-2 against the Bobcats in the regular season and 1-1 versus Weston-McEwen.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.