BROOKINGS — It was like something out of a movie.
In Saturday’s AA championship match against Roosevelt, Nebraska commit Sam Slaughter, who has spent the better part of her senior season rewriting the Harrisburg record books, put together the best performance of her young career.
The 6-foot-1 outside/middle hitter set a new career-high in kills. No. 37 tied the decisive fifth set at 9-9 and No. 39 clinched the state title for the Tigers, who rallied to beat the Rough Riders 3-2 (21-25, 25-12, 14-25, 25-13, 15-10).
“That was probably the best game of my entire life,” Slaughter said. “It was everything I wished for. It was more than I wished for.”
“I’m so happy for her,” Avery Thorson said. “Getting her career-high in kills in her last match of her senior year makes my heart so happy.”
Slaughter scored seven kills to extend her team’s season in set four, then added seven more to finish off their championship run in set five. She added three aces, 14 digs and a couple of block assists just for good measure.
It was one hell of a way to end her career and her being responsible for the title-clinching kill provided the perfect ending.
“Considering the night Sami had, it had to end that way,” Harrisburg coach Ronette Costain said of the night’s final play. “The kid is amazing. Every time we needed her, she stepped up and she delivered.”
Fellow senior McKenna Mathiesen logged four kills, five digs and a solo block.
Teammate Madison Wassink finished with 10 kills and 22 digs, while Thorson finished with 50 assists and 13 digs.
“McKenna, man, came through in clutch moments as well with huge blocks and a couple nice kills on the outside,” Costain said. “Madison bringing it home with the 13th point, we needed that.”
Roosevelt was led in kills by Kaylor Ragels who notched 12 to go with three digs and a couple of block assists. Brooklin Vinatieri tallied two aces and 11 digs, Abby Heberlee had 34 assists and Madelyn Simmons finished with 11 digs.
Mikaela Ahrendt led the team with two blocks.
“We played Harrisburg the best we possibly could have played,” Roosevelt coach Holly Lynch said. “It’s hard when you have a Division I athlete hitting at you, but honestly, these girls pulled together. I couldn’t be more proud of our girls. I am. I’m so proud of them for responding the way they did. I thought they did fantastic.”
Harrisburg came out nervous in set one and Roosevelt took advantage, grabbing the first four points of the match thanks in large part to miscues to the Tigers. That early lead proved crucial for the Riders, who managed to maintain some distance between themselves and Harrisburg until late in the set.
“Nerves were everywhere. I can’t even explain,” Thorson said. “Once we loosened up and got to playing our own game, that’s when we did our best.”
Though the result of that opening set didn’t go the Tigers’ way, they did start to quietly find their footing as it progressed, closing the gap to 24-21 before Roosevelt delivered the final kill to close out the set.
Harrisburg maintained its composure and carried it through to the second set, where it rattled off six straight points early on and coasted to a 25-12 win.
Roosevelt repaid the favor in the third set, leading 21-9 at one point before closing out the 25-14 win.
Down but not out, Slaughter and the Tigers pulled away late in the fourth set to even the match one last time.
“Throughout this whole season, I’ve had rough patches and my team takes me and covers me up and cheers me on, so I felt I had to do that tonight.”
The lack of drama through the first four sets was more than made up for in the final game, which saw the two sides battling back and forth, each point seemingly lasting an eternity with neither side conceding an inch.
Just when it looked like Harrisburg was positioned to start pulling away at 6-3, Roosevelt stormed back, seizing a 9-8 lead.
But then Slaughter provided what was perhaps the biggest play of the night, skying up and delivering a monstrous swat that deflected off a Roosevelt player and out of bounds to even the ledger at 9-9.
Brian Hank Haenchen (@Brian_Haenchen) November 20, 2016
Moments later, Avery Thorson managed to punch a shot over the net that pushed Harrisburg’s lead to 12-10, then Slaughter closed it out with her 39th kill of the night.
As the ball crossed over the net and began its descent towards the hardwood at the Swiftel Center, Slaughter ascended into the air, tears already flowing down her cheeks.
“That set point when I saw that ball coming to me, I just knew I had to put that one away,” Slaughter said. “I wanted that one so bad.”
This was Harrisburg’s first state title in volleyball since 2005 and its first-ever in Class AA. The Tigers finished fourth at last year’s tournament, falling to Brandon Valley in the semifinals, then O’Gorman in the third-place match.
“It’s amazing because we’ve all played together for so long,” Thorson said. “It’s so great for the seniors. It feels good all around.”
Jon Klemme (@JonKlemme) November 20, 2016
A RUDE AWAKENING
Harrisburg’s championship run was nearly ended before it could even start.
The odds-on favorite entering district play in 2AA, the top-seeded Tigers were swept by No. 4 Lincoln (25-23, 28-26, 25-21), which had beaten Yankton the night before in the play-in match.
It was a rather stunning upset, but, as these things so often go, the embarrassment of that loss refocused the title-hungry Tigers, who rolled through Brandon Valley and then O’Gorman to clinch a berth in the state tournament, where they swept past Lincoln (again) and Aberdeen Central to reach the championship.
Here’s what a few members of the Harrisburg volleyball team had to say about that loss to Lincoln…
Costain: “It fired them up. They knew that they were better than that, but they didn’t show up that night and they promised themselves they were never going to do that again.”
Slaughter: “That was kind of an eye opener. We didn’t walk in the gym cocky, but we kind of thought we could just win it and they turned around and kicked our butts. So, we turned around and showed up at the tournament.”
Thorson: “It woke us up for sure. We played kind of complacent and that’s just not what we wanted going into the state tournament. So, the loss actually turned out to be kind of a good thing for us. It woke us up, told us that we’re not going to walk through every game and made us competitive.”
Wassink: “I think it lit a fire under our butts. We got going. I thank them for getting us going. I don’t think we would have played like that without them.”
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen .