EHS volleyball sixth at 4A State Tourney

EHS volleyball player Emily Freeland (No. 11) tips the ball over a pair of Kelly Walsh defenders during the opening round of the 4A State Volleyball Tournament Saturday at the Casper Events Center, as teammates Taylor Petersen, Stacia Barker, Halle Brady and Kambree Brown look on. (HERALD PHOTO/Don Cogger)

The Evanston High School volleyball team began and ended the 4A State Volleyball Tournament Saturday with hard-fought, five-set losses, but in between was the best volleyball the Lady Devils played all season.

After falling to defending state champion Kelly Walsh in Saturday’s opening round at the Casper Event Center, the Lady Devils battled to an exhilarating sweep of Rock Springs — the 4A West Regional champs — in a loser-out game. In the consolation championship, though, Evanston took a rollercoaster ride with Star Valley before a heartbreaking five-set loss ended their season.

“We competed, and I am very proud of the girls,” said EHS head coach Tera Lawlar. “It’s great when you have kids at the end of the season who are sad, obviously, because it’s over, but come up and tell you, ‘Tell us when we’re ready to go, coach, because we’re ready to go for next season.’ To not even have a day to process, or to wrap your head around the end of one season, and already be thinking about the next season is pretty impressive.”

The Lady Devils had a tough draw in the opening round against the East’s No. 2 seed Kelly Walsh, a team looking for its fourth straight 4A state title. But after falling 25-20 to the Lady Trojans in the opening set, the Lady Devils stormed back to win the next two, 25-22 and 25-23, respectively.

“When we were down in the first set against Kelly Walsh, we saw some adjustments that could be made,” Lawlar said. “We made those, and I think it definitely helped us. We were in their backyard, they have a lot of fan support. For us to come back and win the second and third sets, I love the mental toughness that we showed.”

Kelly Walsh stormed back to take the fourth set 25-23, setting up a fifth-set tiebreaker. The Lady Devils jumped out to an early 7-3 lead in the deciding set, but seemed to fade down the stretch — the Lady Trojans went on an 8-1 run to close out the set, and the match, 15-10.

“In the fifth set, we got the early lead, and we kept yelling, ‘Don’t let up! Don’t let up!’” Lawlar said. “We had watched video on them, and knew they could come back. But I’m proud of how we battled. I wish we could have finished — I felt like the girls knew that one kind of got away from us. It was a little heartbreaking, especially because we know how close we were, and how possible it was. We would have liked to have been one of the teams from our side of the state to advance.”

Junior Emily Freeland led the way for Evanston with 14 kills against the defending champs, followed by Stacia Barker with six. Mia Barker finished with five kills.

“I have to give it to Emily Freeland, she really stepped up,” Lawlar said. “I thought Baylie [Critchfield] did a nice job, and I thought our setters did a good job of scrambling. Overall, I thought they played well as a team. That first set, I didn’t really feel like it was Kelly Walsh dominating, as it was us making errors. I thought we served well, but our passing could have been a little cleaner.”

The loss dropped the Lady Devils into the consolation bracket, where they squared off against 4A West Regional champion Rock Springs, losers in straight sets to Cheyenne East, the eastern conference’s No. 4 seed.

The contest allowed Evanston to exact a measure of revenge against the Lady Tigers, who won the only meeting of the two teams in the regular season in a five-set thriller. Because of the quick turnaround required by the one-day tournament format, the Lady Devils had little time to stew on the loss to Kelly Walsh before they were due back on the court.

“My highlight of the tournament was knowing how deeply disappointed we all were with the loss against KW, to mentally put that behind them,” Lawlar said. “I was so very proud of how they were talking to each other and lifting each other up before the Rock Springs match. You could see they were looking at each other like, ‘OK, this is the situation we’re in. We might as well make the best of it. Let’s do it.’ and they came out with a lot of confidence.”

Down 16-12 in the first set, the Lady Devils stormed back to win 25-23, led by six kills from Freeland. Rock Springs kept it close in the second set before falling 27-25; Evanston completed the sweep with a decisive 25-18 win in the third.

“Rock Springs battled, but I loved our ‘never quit’ attitude,” Lawlar said. “They dug in, and they showed a lot of grit. We tell the girls, ‘We don’t just say that because it looks pretty written on the whiteboard every day. It truly is what is going to define us.’ We know these kinds of opportunities are going to come our way, and we need to be prepared.”

Freeland again led the team in kills with 14, followed by Stacia Barker with seven and Mia Barker with six.

It was a redemptive win for Evanston, who had to watch Rock Springs celebrate a regional championship on the Lady Devils’ home floor. Lawlar said she admired the “heart and grit” of her team, as well as their ability to rebound so quickly after a heartbreaker against Kelly Walsh.

“I was really proud of the heart and the grit, especially when your heart is hurting like that from the previous loss,” Lawlar said. “It was hard for our girls to watch Rock Springs celebrate and play ‘We Are the Champions’ in our home gym [at regionals]. I think it was Kambree Brown that said ‘Guys, after we beat them, we’ll know that we had just as good a chance at being regional champs that they did.’ I loved the attitude of them knowing it was an opportunity to prove that we could battle and beat the regional champs. Our girls had a great mindset going in.”

Lawlar argued that her team saved their best effort of the season for the state tournament.

“Against Rock Springs, all 12 cylinders were working together like a machine,” she said. “It was the first time in watching them that I felt like it was one team, one goal, all in completely. I saw that, and it felt so good to be able to play our best, cohesive volleyball as a team, at the state level. It was our best effort as a team, and to do it at state, against a team that has had a ton of success, was really special.”

With the win, Evanston earned a spot in the Consolation Championship game against an all-too-familiar foe. After losing to eventual champion Laramie 3-1 in the opening round, Star Valley knocked off conference rival Natrona County 3-1 to set up the fifth meeting between Evanston and the Lady Braves this season; the Lady Devils were 4-0 against their quadrant rivals to this point.

“Kudos to Star Valley, five times in one season is a lot,” Lawlar said. “They’re a good team, and they have great athletes. They also have a good coach.”

Still amped from their sweep of Rock Springs, the Lady Devils won the first two sets against Star Valley 25-20 and 28-26, respectively, and appeared poised for their second sweep of the tournament.

The Lady Braves, however, had other plans. Determined not to go down without a fight, Star Valley won the next two sets by identical 25-23 scores, setting up a fifth and final set.

With both teams running on fumes, Star Valley built a 12-5 lead to start the set. Digging deep, the Lady Devils battled back to within four, but could get no closer, as the Lady Devils held on to win the Consolation Championship 15-11.

“It was sad that we lost — I could tell that if we didn’t do it in four sets, our girls were getting tired,” Lawlar said. “You could see the girls were tired, and trying to convince them they weren’t was difficult. Star Valley wouldn’t go away, and I give them a lot of credit for being tough. They definitely stepped up.”

The match ended the careers of six Lady Devil seniors — players Taryn Holt, Kambree Brown, Taylor Petersen and Allyson Sawyer and managers Allie Pace and Cora Hatch — and Lawlar praised them for their contributions to the team.

“We’ll miss our seniors greatly,” Lawlar said. “The four of them have been great, as have our two managers. They’re a part of our family. I guess it wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t feel these things — if we didn’t feel the sadness that it’s over. I think it would be proof that we did it wrong. By feeling this way, it shows that these girls did it the right way.”

For her part, Petersen said that — while the tournament may not have gone how the team had hoped — there was a lot of good to take away from it.

“We still played really well, taking both Kelly Walsh and Star Valley to the brink of wins,” she said. “We were so happy to be able to have a redemption game against Rock Springs. Sweeping them will be a win I’ll never forget. Certainly, we would have loved to play in the semifinals or the championship, but the fact we got to finish our season was winning enough.”

While the future looks bright for the Lady Devils — juniors Freeland, Stacia Barker, Mia Barker, Abbie Rigby, Mackenzie Porter, Kaitlin Deru, Baylie Critchfield and sophomore Halle Brady will all be back next season — Freeland said this team had a special connection.

“We had a relentless drive throughout the season,” she said.

“I will miss our four seniors a lot and I will miss looking forward to going to practice everyday with my teammates.”

Lawlar went on to say the 2020 season will be one to remember, not just for the team’s success on the court, but for how they treated each other off of it.

“Things that they had experienced with past teams and past seasons, they made a conscious effort all season long not to repeat some of the things they didn’t love,” she said. “I give them a ton of credit, and tons of maturity points for being able to play together. It can be a long season, and to immediately after it ends to be able to talk about when we can start up again is pretty special.”

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