Droves of Durango volleyball fans packed the Trailblazers’ gym on Wednesday night, hoping to celebrate senior night with a victory over Shadow Ridge to clinch the No. 2 seed in next week’s Class 4A Sunset Region tournament.
Whittnee Nihipali had other ideas.
The Mustangs’ 6-foot-3-inch senior star proved once again she is among the state’s best players, posting 24 kills and five digs in a 25-14, 25-16, 25-22 road win over Durango in the regular-season finale.
Shadow Ridge secured the No. 2 seed in the regional tournament, and the Trailblazers will settle for the No. 3 slot after winning their first 11 league games.
The Mustangs (26-10) host Sierra Vista on Tuesday night. Durango (23-11) is home against Legacy.
“This is like the fun part of the season,” said Nihipali, who is committed to Arizona. “The season is fun, conference is fun, but this is all or nothing. This is where everybody’s heart kind of shows … Everybody’s beast mode comes out.”
Shadow Ridge has dropped one match in the month of October, and coach Karissa Guthrie said the Mustangs are playing some of their best volleyball at the right time of the season.
Thanks in large part to Nihipali.
Shadow Ridge quelled Durango’s emotional high with a dominant first set, scoring the first six points as Nihipali took advantage of shorter blockers.
“They came out more focused and more prepared than we did,” Durango coach Amy Schlauder said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t deal with the emotion of senior night as well as we could have.”
The Mustangs rolled in the second set, too, relying on a strong return game and well-timed blocks.
The Trailblazers rallied in the third and led most of the way. But Nihipali had a pair of unblockable spikes to cement a timely victory.
Autumn Spendlove had 20 assists, and Alysha Smith added 15 assists, 15 digs and three kills for Shadow Ridge.
Jaquelyn Robinson led Durango with six kills. Sierra Leone Sanchez posted 13 digs and Tehani Faitau had 13 assists.
“We have a lot to get prepared for,” Guthrie said. “This is kind of the next step to what we need to do next. They’re playing well.”
Contact reporter Sam Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.