Volleyball: Iconic programs meet in D-I final

Volleyball: Iconic programs meet in D-I final

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Volleyball: Iconic programs meet in D-I final

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Two iconic programs. Two iconic coaches.

Tuesday night’s 7:45 Division I girls volleyball tournament championship match at Gilbert Mesquite High pits top-seeded Phoenix Horizon against No.3 Phoenix Xavier Prep.

Horizon coach Valorie McKenzie has more than 700 career wins and two state titles (2009 and 2010 in Class 5A Division II) in 33 years. And Tim McHale’s 12 years at Xavierhave garnered six state titles in the past 10 seasons.

Horizon (42-3) has been the state-title favorite since the season began. And the team has played like it with a powerful attack engineered by three 6-foot-4 players (a versatile Jensen Cunningham, a quick Tess Clark and the now-healthy Christine Johnson), hard-hitting Sierra Nobley and go-to hitter Nikki Hess.

But McKenzie knows the dangers Xavier brings.

“Xavier’s got a lot of talent,” McKenzie said. “They got their big Number 16 (Khalia Lanier), they run their middle (Megan O’Sullivan) well and their outside (Mia Teilborg). They dig like crazy with an amazing libero (Amanda Benson). Yeah, it’s going to be great volleyball.

“You have to respect a team like Xavier. All the time.”

Xavier has a mix of veterans and young talent, but McHale said they’re all “gifted athletes.”

“They had to grow up a lot this year with people stepping into new roles,” McHale said. “They’re finding their way. It’s been a lot of self-sacrifice by them the last few weeks. That’s really what a team is about.”

Tuesday’s match is also his last match as Xavier’s head coach. McHale will retire when the season is over, something Benson said is a big motivator for the team.

“We just try to play for him, make it a good last season,” Benson said. “It’s all for him. Every single game, every single time we step out on the court, we have to give it our all.”

Before the Division I title match begins, No.1 Flagstaff takes on No.6 Phoenix Arcadia for the Division II tournament title at 5:30 p.m.Tuesday at Mesquite High.

Flagstaff is undefeated with 41 wins on the season, but Arcadia, which is led by seniors Stacey Benton, Jensen Barton and Izzy Miller, comes in as the favorite.

“You can’t ask for anything more than those three,” Arcadia coach Josh Olshan said. “If you’re not going to have fun while you’re doing it, then why do it? And these kids are a blast. I tell you, when we’re on, it’s amazing to watch.”

But Olshan knows that Flagstaff won’t be an easy opponent. You don’t go undefeated to this point of the season without being a strong team to be wary of.

“I really believe this year was so wide open,” he said. “There is no way to look past a team this year.”

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