GRESHAM — As if Blue Mountain Community College didn’t have enough motivation to cap off its tremendous volleyball season with an NWAACC championship trophy, the Timberwolves added one more reason half way through their title bout against Spokane on Sunday.
Outside hitter Claire Tolbert.
For the second time in three seasons, the Timberwolves are NWAACC volleyball champions.
The Pendleton program was leading the second set 14-12 at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham when Tolbert went up for a spike along the left flank. She twisted in the air to reach a set from Robyn Schirmer, but came down awkwardly on her left leg as the ball caromed off the net.
Tolbert, one of seven sophomores playing their last BMCC volleyball match Sunday, went immediately to the floor in pain. Tolbert’s cries rattled the Timberwolves as they cleared the court — many sharing her tear-stained cheeks — as medical attendants rushed in to help.
Schirmer, Tolbert’s roommate at the college, was among those surrounding the injured and near-panicked Timberwolf. Seeing her teammate and friend in such agony could have unraveled Schirmer and the BMCC effort. Instead, it acted like a spark from destiny.
“We played as well as we did for her and every time I looked on the bench she was just crying,” Schirmer said. “It just pushed us even more to win this, not just for ourselves but for our teammate. It hurt to see her there on the side by herself. … It hurt to have to finish this one without her.”
Coach Dave Baty said he could read his girls’ expressions as they returned to play. They wouldn’t slip up, he thought to himself, not when they were so close to the end.
“I looked out on our faces after Claire went down and realized that the stakes just went up for us,” Baty said. “They got a whole lot more to play for and they rewarded themselves, they rewarded Claire. They finished.”
Out of the injury timeout, a 10-minute window that gave the Timberwolves ample time alone in their own heads, BMCC stood tall. Five of the next six points went the way of the East Region regular season champions to build a 19-14 advantage.
After a pair of hitting errors helped the Sasquatch (31-11) sustain a little life, BMCC went for the jugular with another stretch of scoring. Blue Mountain closed the set with six points in seven serves that included the clincher, a hitting error by Spokane’s Annie Arnzen that was originally ruled a kill. The line judge overruled the call after determining that the ball glanced off the left antennae and was out of play.
The Timberwolves closed the first set on a similar tear and dominated the third with long runs as well. Set 1 wrapped up with BMCC winning 12 of the final 14 points and the T-Wolves lead in Set 3 swelled from 13-9 to a overwhelming 23-10 as the Sasquatch became gradually more deflated.
“We were just talking and getting really loud,” said BMCC hitter Kassi Howarth, the proprietor of a 13-kill performance — tops in the match. “Noticing that the other team was getting really quite, it inspired us to get even louder.”
Howarth smashed six kills in the final set and finished with a .407 hitting percentage as the Timberwolves hit .216 as a team. Spokane’s percentage was just .037 and -.051 in the final game.
Blue Mountain’s ability to put scoring streaks together defined the championship match, said Spokane’s Kate Hart. The Sasquatch knew the Timberwolves were capable of such momentum-building runs, having now faced and lost to BMCC four times this season — including in both the NWAACC semifinal and final.
Familiarity bred new strategies in this instance, Hart said. Or at least an attempt at new strategies.
“Playing them (Saturday) really helped us in the finals,” she said. “We were trying to work on our passing and blocking because we knew they had strong hitters, too.”
Spokane blocked six shots in the championship, including six from Hart, after blocking eight in a straight-set semifinal loss the day before. Spokane had to beat Walla Walla to earn a rematch Sunday in the double-elimination NWAACC bracket.
Both of Blue Mountain’s championships in the past three years have come with setter Schirmer running the offense. The sophomore sat out last season after having a child, but returned for an encore in 2012. She assisted on 35 kills in the final match and averaged more than 10 per game during her East Region MVP campaign.
Other major contributors in the championship effort Sunday included Crystal Schmidt of Hermiston, who hit seven kills at a .375 clip. Kendra De Hoog tallied six kills, the match point among them, and Kensey Mix ended with five. Piper Cantrell finished with a match-high 18 digs.