ELBERT COUNTY-Almost 20 full years after her Cubs hoisted high the program's second Class 2A state championship gold ball in a three-year stretch, iconic Simla head coach Sue Snyder proudly presided over the Sept. 24 SHS Invitational, praising the quality of participating teams far more than quantity.
"This was one tough tournament," she declared, having seen her squad emerge victorious at day's end, though not in the match they'd hoped to reach.
But with three of the meet's six competing crews coming in ranked in the CHSAANow.com 2A poll's top-ten, and two on the cusp as 'Others Receiving Votes,' Snyder knew first place for any squad would be a hard-earned, postseason-like achievement.
That was the appeal to teams driven to drive from distant towns; Weld, Las Animas, Routt, Yuma and La Plata Counties were all represented, and their respective sides eagerly sought to show some early-season state-tourney worthiness and get a glimpse of the sort of play demanded inside the Denver Coliseum.
"I honestly think we got into our own heads, because we were slow at first, but it was really exciting to go out there and play a hard team," said Ignacio freshman Makayla Howell, assessing the Volleycats' opposition.
"Our team's still trying to get that bond together for playing volleyball, trying to build our team up," added freshman Morgan Herrera.
Before heading to Simla, the Bobcats came off an expected, yet still impressive (25-16, 25-21, 25-10) 2A/1A San Juan Basin League sweep of Mancos back home barely 36 hours earlier.
Included in Pool 2 with #2-ranked Greeley Dayspring Christian Academy and Simla, the 'Cats managed to take one game and almost a second from Simla and destructive junior Jerraldawn Rector before losing the first clash 16-25, 25-23, 29-31, 12-25.
"After we shut her down it was a lot easier to get her," said Herrera, who paired with Howell for a Rector-rejecting block which echoed louder than most and had heads turning viciously to see who'd survived the attempted slam. "Me and (Howell) are really good at communicating with each other."
"We got a lot of confidence," Avion Gomez said of IHS' Game 2 win and Game 3 near-miss. "One of their players hit really good, we blocked her, and it was kind of fun!"
There was noticeably less of that in the contest against Greeley immediately following the loss to SHS, but Ignacio still managed to please head coach Thad Cano by pressuring the height-blessed Eagles often in a 15-25, 15-25, 20-25 loss.
In Game 1 the 'Cats had actually led 3-0 and rallied to tie at 6-6. In Game 2 IHS led at 2-0 and 4-2 and also came as close as 16-14 on senior Kelly Campbell's piercing spike through Dayspring's vaunted front of juniors Katie Kurz and Megan Roberts, and senior Makayla Bell.
"They were definitely a similar team, just a little bit bigger than Simla was," said Howell. "They had a lot of good hitters, they were big, but we kept up with them. We did what we do best-we played our own game - and we can beat them, I think, if we really wanted to."
"We got intimidated and I think we just stuck with that for a long time," Herrera concurred.
Finally granted a break to properly refuel and rehydrate while Greeley swept SHS in another relatively close match, Ignacio took full advantage to rest up before facing Oak Creek Soroco - which had appeared upset-capable in a three-game loss to #5-ranked Hoehne, but less so in a three-gamer against #9 Wray - for fifth place.
Both teams looked to relish playing against less "vertical" resistance. Racing out to an 8-1 lead, Soroco led almost wire-to-wire and took Game 1 25-14 with a Charlee Veilleux ace.
Game 2 saw the teams trade almost evenly before IHS went up 13-12 and led by as many as seven points, 21-14, before SHS pulled even at 24 on an ace by libero Cassie Constine and then stole the game when Ignacio's Shoshone Thompson hit long and Constine then placed a perfect free ball onto vacant flooring.
"I think the break killed us. We just got tired and lazy, and we came in playing lazy and tired," lamented Howell. "And then we started playing our game; we started doing what we do best and picked it up. We started killing the ball.one pass at a time to one set at a time to one kill at a time."
"Dayspring Christian and Simla, we just wanted to finish and go home with a win," Gomez said. "We just focused on going home, because we were all really tired."
Two Gomez aces gave the 'Cats a 10-7 upper hand in Game 3.
Incredibly, just when it seemed SHS had little left, Soroco worked for a 6-3 advantage in the tiebreaker, and led 7-4 before a devastating 10-0 Ignacio run with Gomez holding serve.
Preparing for an Oct. 1 visit from Norwood, the 'Cats improved to 5-6 overall.