The Lady Panthers lost the 4A state championship match to No. 4 St. Pius X in five sets (17-25, 25-14, 20-25, 25-22, 15-11) Saturday at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho.
“It was pretty disappointing for everybody,” said PV head coach Ron Becker. “The girls worked so hard. It's just tough. There is a lot of pressure, but they fought hard and didn't quit. They continued to fight no matter the circumstances, and that's what I'm most proud of.”
It was the first time this season that Piedra Vista (22-2) lost a match to 4A competition with the only other defeat coming against 5A No. 1 Cleveland.
“They accomplished more than any of our teams ever had and did a great job all season,” Becker said. “The season was fantastic and I'm not going to let one loss diminish how great the rest of it was.”
Senior star Katie Hegarty led the Lady Panther attack with 32 kills. Junior Sam Sofka had nine kills and senior McKenna Culp added eight.
Sophomore setter Vannessa Harris recorded 47 assists.
“We left it all on the court, and I couldn't ask for anything more,” Hegarty said. “I can go home and say we gave it our all.”
The Lady Panthers wasted no time building an advantage in the first set, scoring six straight points to open a 6-1 lead.
PV kept the pressure on the Sartans, pushing the lead to 11-3.
The Lady Panthers maintained the lead for the remainder of the set to take a 1-0 lead.
The Sartans (18-9) responded in the second set.
PV opened the set with a 6-4 lead, but St. Pius replied with nine-straight points to go up 13-6.
The Sartans never relinquished their advantage and tied the match at a set apiece.
St. Pius appeared to have the momentum in the third set with a 17-15 lead, but the Lady Panthers won 10 of the final 13 points to comeback and open a 2-1 lead.
The Sartans wouldn't go away, though, as they completed a comeback of their own in the fourth set to tie the match again.
The Lady Panthers had a 22-20 lead and were just three points away from the state title when St. Pius ran off five straight points to close out the set.
“We needed to close them out in the fourth,” Becker said. “Volleyball is a huge momentum game, and they carried that into the fifth.”
The Sartans used that momentum in the fifth set, opening a 3-0 lead. PV replied with four points on kills by Hegarty to gain its only lead of the set at 4-3.
St. Pius answered the Lady Panther run with an 8-0 run of their own to open an 11-4 lead.
Trailing 14-6, PV fought off five match points before a Kacey Varnell serve went long to clinch the title for the Sartans.
St. Pius had finished as the runner-up in the past three state championship matches.
PV reached the title match for the first time in school history after coming back from down two sets to beat No. 5 Artesia in the semifinals and sweeping No. 2 Albuquerque Academy in straight sets in the quarterfinals.
It was the final match for the senior class of Hegarty, Culp, Olivia Johnson and Rachael Eaves.
“Coming in last year, they just accepted me and, as cliché as it sounds, we became sisters,” said Hegarty, who transferred to PV from Aztec as a junior.
Becker knows he has a hard task next season filling the void this class has left behind.
“They are phenomenal, and I couldn't have asked for more,” Becker said. “It's a hard thing losing seniors. You watch them grow and then it's over in a flash. It's hard to see them go.”
PV will have a solid core of experienced players returning, and Becker expects to use this year to catapult his teams to even more success.
“It will be different next year, because we won't be as middle heavy, but Sammy Sofka will be back and I know she can fill that role along with Nianna Alcon on the outside,” he said. “Our setter — Vanessa Harris — still has a couple years left and I'm excited to see her continue to grow, and all of our defense is back. We're going to be right there again.”
Hegarty expects the 2013 Lady Panthers' to pick up where this team left off.
“This year was a big deal,” she said. “Getting the one seed and having the young girls coming up in the program to experience this. I know they'll be great next year and I'll be making trips back from college next year to watch them play.”