The Panthers opened the tournament by beating the East’s No. 1 Rawlins Outlaws, advanced to the semis and did away with the West’s No. 2 Jackson Broncs and then proved to be the stronger feline against the East’s No. 2 Douglas Bearcats in the championship match.
Head coach Cindi Smith said Powell’s triumph was “the ultimate team effort ... starting with our block, and our attack stayed aggressive and our back line worked hard to keep balls live.”
Smith also said she was happy that the team’s senior trio (Shawnea Harrington, Cassidi Partridge and Tori Sleep) was able to go out on top.
“There will be so many coaches and players who go through athletics and never be a part of this (a state championship),” Smith said. “It’s great to be able to experience something that some people will never get the opportunity to.”
Up two games to one in the deciding match versus Rawlins, the Panthers led 24-13 and were on the brink of their first championship in five years.
Powell’s student section, largely consisting of football players who had made the trip to Casper following their Friday-night home game (a 49-20 playoff victory over Torrington), was giving the Panthers a home-court atmosphere.
“They all came down and the (Casper) Events Center was filled with Panther fans and it was just amazing to hear their spirit,” Smith said.
That spirit was turned up to 11 when Sleep sent down the final kill of the season between two Bearcat blockers for the match-clinching point. She was almost speechless following her final game in a Powell Panther uniform.
“I really just have no words,” Sleep said. “I wanted this so bad. So, so bad.”
Similarly, senior middle Partridge smiled in wonder as she tried to comprehend the gravity of the moment.
“Amazing!” Partridge said almost in disbelief. “I can’t really explain what my emotions are right now.”
For freshman Kalina Smith (coach Smith’s daughter), the title was a dream turned to reality. Smith said she remembers watching as the 2008 team celebrated its title and said it motivated her to work hard so she could experience that moment on the court.
“I was just in awe,” Smith said of when Powell clinched the match. “It was the most amazing feeling ever.”
Smith led the Panthers in kills in all three matches and had a total of 67 for the tournament.
The first-year player said she knew the Panthers were capable of great things, it was just a matter of playing their best volleyball when it mattered most.
“I knew that stepping on the court we had all the potential in the world,” Smith said. “We had to fight, we had to push, we couldn’t just think it was handed to us.”
Sleep said hard work, combined with the right type of passion, contributed to the state title.
“Our team just has so much heart, and we wanted this so bad,” Sleep said. “We worked all year for it.”
And when the going got tough, Sleep said the Panthers’ heart kept on beating.
“Our heart just pulled through every single point,” she said.
The Panthers lost only three sets the entire tournament, one in each match.
It looked like Powell was headed to a sweep in the title bout but was upended by Rawlins at the last second and lost the third set 22-25.
But as they did all tournament, the Panthers’s lone loss was but a hiccup on the way to a championship banner.
“That third game, we were so close (but) we were so inconsistent,” Partridge said. “That fourth game, we kept pushing and we just didn’t give up.”
Powell put the pedal to the floor in the fourth and final set and won by its largest margin of the tournament.
“We did it,” Sleep said. “All of us, all of our hard work. We did it.”
contribute to title
Sleep had nine kills, including the match and second-set winners. She also had one solo block and three block assists.
Junior Megan Wagner was the team’s leading blocker, with five solo blocks and three block assists against the Outlaws. Partridge added five block assists and Smith had three solo blocks and one assist.
“Blocking has been a big focus of ours and I really feel like it paid off,” coach Smith said.
Junior middle Taylor Woodward had seven kills, as did sophomore setter Breanna Donarski, who led the team with 23 assists.
Powell’s opening-round victory against Rawlins might have been its most competitive.
The Outlaws came in with title aspirations as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference but were upended by the fast-starting Panthers 25-18, 26-28, 25-18, 25-22.
Junior libero Jenni Ebersberger had a Panther-best 40 digs to keep the Rawlins offense at bay.
Wagner teamed up with Partridge along the net to create a formidable block. Wagner notched one solo block and six block assists, while Partridge assisted on seven blocks. Sleep had two solo blocks and one assist and Kalina Smith had one solo block and two assists. Smith was second with 18 digs.
Donarski assisted on 33 kills against the Outlaws and totalled 85 assists through three matches. She also recorded 61 digs, including a Panther tournament-high 32 vs. Jackson.
“She was determined not to let that ball drop,” Smith said.
Powell’s semifinal tilt against Jackson served as a tie-breaker for their two-game regular-season series. Each team was victorious on the other’s home court.
Like they did against Rawlins, the Panthers took the first set fairly handily, 25-15, before dropping a closely contested second set, 23-25.
But Powell never let its opponent fully steal the momentum. The Panthers rallied for consecutive wins by scores of 25-17 and 25-22 to advance to Saturday’s finale.
Junior Makaila Moore was a perfect 22-for-22 on serves, including a team-high five aces.
Smith had 21 kills, Sleep notched seven and Wagner, Woodward and Partridge each had five apiece.
Ebersberger led with 26 digs.
Every Panther contributed at some point during Powell’s three-day run.
“All the kids are so special to me,” Smith said. “We had more depth on our bench than I can remember.”
Smith said the team’s depth should leave them in a strong position heading into next season.
“We’re going to celebrate now and then work hard in the offseason,” the coach said.
This weekend’s celebration culminated with a fire truck-led escort into town early Sunday morning.
“We were singing ‘We are the champions’ and the school song,” Smith said. “That was very powerful for the team.”
Smith thanked her coaching staff, assistant coaches Charlie Fluty and Kimberly Edgell, and volunteer coach Celina McGraw for their contributions to the season.