CASPER – The Sundance Bulldogs burst onto the court, beating the Big Piney Lady Punchers in the first two sets of their quarterfinal match at the 2021 State Volleyball Tournament in Casper.
Big Piney entered the third set resolved to battle back.
Sundance delivered a particularly hard hit, kept alive by Big Piney senior Sierra Keiter. Junior Shelby Guest raced into the backcourt, digging deep and returning it to Keiter.
Keiter bumped the ball over the net. Sundance returned the rally. Senior Jocie Banks set the ball up for senior Ceci Sambrano to slam over.
The Punchers overtook Sundance and maintained the lead for most of the third set. Sundance eventually edged ahead to win, 3-0, yet the Punchers’ rally in the third set proved their grit in the midst of a chaotic atmosphere and the high pressure that comes with a state tournament.
Sundance entered the court with a significant advantage. The Bulldogs knew their way around the Ford Wyoming Center as the 2019 2A State Champion and 2020 runner-up.
The Punchers’ varsity squad arrived in Casper on Nov. 4 new to the vortex swirling around them – bright lights, dozens of referees making calls, hundreds of fans cheering eight different teams.
As the first set got underway, with so many whistles blowing, the Lady Punchers did not realize they had scored the first point until the ball came rolling under the net. Big Piney players took a few minutes to get used to the volunteers fetching volleyballs and handing them to the servers.
“I think it took us a little bit longer to get used to the court than it should have,” said Banks. “It was really loud and hectic in that gym. We had to keep our communication going and our blinders on so we didn’t get distracted.”
“It was very exciting to be here at State, but it was a whole different atmosphere,” said senior Hanna Hansen.
The Lady Punchers quickly learned to boost each other up with the right attitude.
“We had to stay positive,” said Sambrano. “We had to cheer each other up, every single point. Even if it was a bad point, we could fix that mistake easily and instantly with positive attitudes. We kind of got into the groove after we got a couple of kills (in the third set).”
The loss to Sundance knocked the Punchers into the consolation semifinals where they squared off against the Tongue River Eagles.
Tongue River pulled out the win, 3-0, though not without a fight from Big Piney in the first and final sets.
Despite the season ending before they would have preferred, the senior team captains appreciated the lessons the experience provided for next year’s varsity squad.
“We learned that we have to come out hungry,” said Hansen. “Nobody is going to give it to us and we can’t give it to them either.”
Head Coach Kinsy Voss agreed that although playing at State was exciting, it was “a bit overwhelming” at first.
“Big Piney held back a bit, took them a lot longer than usual to get comfortable on the court,” she said. “That in turn hurt us.”
Voss added the team stepped up in the face of the pressure.
“I had a couple girls really stand up and play at State and had their best game there,” she said. “Hannah Runyan dominated the net. She kept the majority of Sundance’s hits on their side. Jocie Banks was another standout not only in offense with her sets, but also defense on the net and in the back row. Another shoutout is our libero Shelby Guest. Her hustle is just out of this world. She’ll sacrifice a lot just to get a touch on a ball.”
Runyan scored the Punchers’ first point in the opening set with a block. Senior Lena Hatch delivered a kill for point 3.
Sundance hit net returning a serve from Hansen. The Bulldogs fired of a sequence of points, although Runyan, Sambrano and Hansen delivered kills, assisted by Hansen. Runyan aced point 13 before Sundance scored set point, 25-13.
The Bulldogs turned up the heat in the second set, establishing a five-point lead right out of the gate and taking the win, 25-15.
Runyan put the Punchers on the scoreboard with a block. Sambrano bumped over a point. Junior Brynne Hoffman served up point 4.
Hatch blocked Sundance’s return from a deep dig by Guest and hit from Hansen. Hatch, Keiter, Runyan and Guest each slammed over kills. Guest aced point 15.
In the third set, Big Piney dug in its heels. Runyan aced the Punchers’ second point. A hit by Sambrano pulled Big Piney into the lead.
Kills fired over by Hatch and Keiter sustained the Punchers’ momentum. Hansen aced point 6. Keiter scored point 7 with a block. Runyan followed up with a kill.
Banks and Runyan aced points 9, 10 and 11.
Sundance snuck up and took the lead until Sambrano tipped the ball over, tying the set at point 13. A kill by Hatch, assisted by Banks, tied the match again at point 14.
Sundance pulled ahead, although a tip by Hatch and hits by Runyan and Hansen kept the Punchers close on the Bulldogs’ heels. Sundance eventually scored match point, 25-20.
The first set turned into a heater. The Eagles scored the first points. Runyan delivered an ace, placing Big Piney in the lead.
Tongue River overtook the Punchers before Hansen and Keiter shot over a series of kills. Tongue River hit the ball out of bounds and the set tied at point 9.
An ace by Banks, a kill from Sambrano and block played by Runyan allowed Big Piney to take the initiative. The Eagles caught up until Hatch scored two points at the net.
Tongue River regained the lead with Big Piney trailing by only one or two points. Hatch delivered a kill for point 15. Tongue River struck out on a serve by Guest. Runyan tipped over point 19. Hansen slammed over a pair of kills, assisted by Banks.
Defensive network by Hansen and Hatch resulted in point 22 for the Punchers.
Tongue River pulled ahead by three points to win the set, 25-22.
The Eagles showed no mercy in the second set, seizing the lead at the first point and widening the gap to set point at 25-13. Sambrano, Hatch and Runyan each spiked over kills and Guest aced a point.
Big Piney put up a sturdier defense in the third set. Hoffman aced point 3. Hatch tipped over point 5 followed by a set from Banks for point 6.
Hansen aced point 7. Runyan wound up a kill for point 11. The Eagles found themselves tangled in the net on two serves from Runyan. Keiter scored point 17 with a kill assisted by Banks. Runyan tapped over point 18.
The Eagles scored match point, 25-18.
Coach Voss said she was pleased with the team’s excellent season – going undefeated in conference play and third-place finish at Regionals.
“Our season was one that we all should be proud of. The Lady Red has one of the best work ethics I’ve ever got a chance to be a part of. Their drive makes you want to be a better coach. The seniors we will all miss, they definitely made this program better. As for the years to come, coach Jess Nugent and I can’t wait to keep improving this program.”