The Powell Panthers volleyball team showed its best and worst traits at the 3A West regionals in Cody over the weekend but did just enough to qualify for the state tournament.
“They weren’t ready for the season to be over,” said head coach Cindi Smith.
The Panthers went 2-2 and will be the West’s No. 4 seed in this weekend’s Class 3A state tournament in Casper. The squad will open the tournament against the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 Rawlins Outlaws at 2 p.m. Thursday.
“I have all the confidence in the world in my team,” Smith said. “They can beat teams like that.”
Powell did not face Rawlins in the regular season.
The Panthers’ state-clinching win came Saturday against the Cody Fillies.
Each team had split its two Friday matches and needed a win to stave off elimination. The do-or-die match proved much less dramatic than Oct. 17’s five-set heart-stopper. Powell swept the Fillies 25-20, 25-16, 25-15.
Still, it didn’t always look easy for the Panthers, who fought with their tendency to allow opponents to hang around and make a comeback.
Powell raced out to an 8-1 first-set lead behind two kills by freshman Kalina Smith and a yummy (a ball that Cody passed softly over the net for a Panther to kill) from senior middle Cassidi Partridge.
Smith led the Panthers with 12 kills against Cody and 75 in the tournament.
Four unforced errors on Powell lifted the Fillies, who cut the lead to 13-8 and then 15-11 before Powell went on another run.
Senior Tori Sleep put down a kill from the right side, Smith used her left hand to reach for a long set and put it down between three Cody defenders, and junior libero Jennie Ebersberger served up three aces as the Panthers went on a 8-2 run to go up 23-13.
Ebersberger had a team high 24 digs and was 25-for-25 against the Fillies. She totaled 118 digs over 17 sets over the weekend.
Cody would have one last gasp, scoring four consecutive points to make the Panthers nervous and call a timeout.
Powell came out of the break up 23-17 and immediately found itself in the set’s longest rally, which ended with Smith tipping another long set into the pole.
A lift on Cody during the next play gave the Panthers set-point, but it would be another three points until they could close the door.
Ebersberger hit a back-row attack long, and the following Cody serve was passed into the net.
Finally, juniors Megan Wagner and Taylor Woodward combined for the set-sealing block that got Powell out of the match’s tightest set with a 25-20 win.
Powell got down 1-3 early in set two, but would avoid the collapse it suffered the day before against Mountain View.
The Panthers rallied for a 4-3 lead and never trailed again.
Powell’s front row played extraordinary along the net, wreaking havoc on the Fillies attack with a pair of blockers up on almost every play.
“It’s something that we’ve been working on throughout the season,” Smith said.
Partridge combined for blocks with Wagner, Smith and Sleep in the second set, and totaled five block assists in the match. She also had two solo blocks.
“She played really focused and relaxed,” Smith said.
Wagner tooled a Cody blocker and followed it with an ace to give the Panthers a 12-7 lead. A Fillies hitting error increased Powell’s biggest lead to 13-7 and forced Cody to call a time out.
Whatever was said in that Fillies huddle worked, because they came out and scored five straight against the Panthers to pull within one point.
Three straight Filly kills came from the right side to bring Cody within one.
But Powell would quickly regroup and ensure the Cody comeback stopped at 13-12.
With the setter out after playing the first ball, Sleep took the Fillies off guard by setting the second ball deep into the back corner for a kill.
Wagner was offered yet another yummy, Smith smoked a kill down the outside line and the Panthers soon led 21-14.
Cody called its second timeout but couldn’t muster another rally.
The set ended like the first, with Wagner punctuating a 25-16 win with a block that Cody was unable to cover.
Cody again came roaring out to an early third-set lead, but the fear of a Powell letdown was eased by the two sets to zero lead.
The Fillies went up 4-0 by taking advantage of Panther mistakes.
Partridge was called for a net violation, then was tooled two plays later. Smith’s outside hit sailed long, and a Cody tip fell between hesitant Panther defenders.
Smith helped get her team back on track with consecutive kills, which combined with two Cody hitting errors to knot the game at 4-4.
It was a back-and-forth set until Powell broke a 9-9 tie and ran away with the state tournament berth.
Sleep recorded two straight kills, and a Smith-Partridge block lifted the Panthers to a 16-11 lead and prompted Cody to call a timeout.
Powell didn’t skip a beat.
Sophomore setter Breanna Donarski scored two aces, Smith fired another attack down the line and a free ball perplexed a pair of Cody defenders and the Panthers soon extended their lead to 20-13.
After playing in only the back row in both of Friday’s matches, Donarski played all the way around Saturday.
“It was just a combination, team-wise, that we felt we needed to make some adjustments to try to see what would help our team,” Smith said. “She’s a great, consistent player for us.”
The kill of the match came when Smith hit a ball so hard off the Cody block that it deflected up into the second deck of Cody’s Sweitzer Gym.
The emphatic point made it 22-14, and the Powell bench couldn’t help but smile knowing its season would last another week.
Cody would score only one more point in the set.
Powell went on to lose to Lyman in the third-place match Saturday afternoon. The Panthers lost 17-25, 15-25, 25-20, 29-27, 13-15.
Three Panthers notched double-digit kills in the loss. Smith had 22, Sleep had 14 and Wagner had 10.
Partridge again was big along the net, tallying five solo blocks and one assist.
Powell beat Lyman, also in five sets, in the Panthers’ opening match Friday.
The 25-19, 20-25, 25-24, 14-25, 15-12 win got Powell’s girls started on the right foot and put them in a position to battle for the West’s No. 1 seed.
Smith (25 kills) and Woodward (nine) led the offensive charge while Ebersberger (30 digs), Smith (29) and Donarski (24) led the Panther defense.
Powell advanced to play the Southwest Division’s No. 1 seed Mountain View Buffalos.
The Panthers played a great first set and won 25-18, but the wheels came off and Powell dropped three straight to move to the consolation bracket.
Partridge and Smith each had three solo blocks, while Sleep had one solo and one block assist.
Donarski was a perfect 43-for-43 on serves in Powell’s first three matches.
Smith said the Panthers’ final week of practice will be used to fine-tune both their play and their mindsets.
“Volleyball is so mental, we just have to come in and be focused,” Smith said.
Coach Smith knows Rawlins to be a strong team with great passers who are tough to score against.
“They’re pretty solid on their ball control,” the coach said. “That’s where that never-give-up attitude has to come in.”