The fate that ended the season for the La Grande Tigers volleyball team the last four years — a postseason loss at home — seemed likely again Saturday in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs.
The Marshfield Pirates appeared on their way to victory after taking a two-set lead. Their attack was powerful and on-point — so much so that at times a kill or ace was hit so hard it knocked back a Tiger defender who tried to make a play on it.
Instead, the Tigers found the grit to fight back and, fueled by a crowd that got progressively louder down the stretch, pulled off a stunning comeback to reach the state quarterfinals, topping Marshfield in five sets, 21-25, 19-25, 25-20, 25-22, 15-8.
“Our bench stepped it up, the kids out on the floor stepped it up, and it was amazing to see,” Head Coach Melinda Becker-Bisenius said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of the team.”
After winning set three, the Tigers scored the final four points of the fourth set on a Jayce Seavert kill and three Marshfield errors to send the match to the deciding fifth set.
La Grande quickly took control in the final set with a 7-1 run that was too much for Marshfield to overcome. Presley Justice, who led the Tigers with 17 kills, had three kills in a four-point stretch for an 8-5 lead, and Seavert made it 13-6 with a kill. An ace by Mallory Heyer of Marshfield — one of 16 the Pirates had on the day — cut the margin to five, but Jaiden Hafer and Seavert finished the match with back-to-back kills to set off a deafening celebration.
“I thought it was unbelievable, how we were so down and we came back,” Justice, who also had 26 digs, said. “But I knew we could do it.”
Ending the four-year postseason home losing streak — which included first-round losses in 2014 and 2015, and play-in game losses the last two seasons — appeared to be a farfetched prospect after two sets. The Pirates never trailed in the opening set and then rallied from a 10-2 deficit in set two to take their commanding 2-0 lead. Alex Locati, who had 17 kills, and McKayla Myrand, who had 10 kills, both had six through what was a rough first two sets for a scrambling La Grande defense and serve-receive team. Marshfield had more than half its kills (22) and half its aces (nine) in the first two sets alone.
But Becker-Bisenius said she told her team to keep fighting and show heart. Her message? “‘They’re not going to let us win. You have to play with heart right now. You have to step it up. We have heart. — I (saw it in) you guys when we won the league championship,’” she said.
Added Justice: “We just said, ‘We’re still in it.’ It’s anybody’s game in volleyball.”
The Tigers used that spark on both offense and defense to take set three, leading it wire-to-wire behind five kills from Justice. Defensively, La Grande found a way to dig hits that had gone down for kills in the first two sets. The Tigers were also more effective at getting Marshfield out of system, which weakened the Pirates’ attack.
“Our practice this week helped a lot,” Felicity Houston, who had 29 digs to lead the back line, said. “Working together as a team, knowing we’re there for each other, knowing ‘If I don’t get this, you’ve got my back,’ or vise versa.”
Even Marshfield Head Coach Tammie Montiel said La Grande’s defense was a crucial part of its come back.
“La Grande played scrappy,” she said. “They dug up a lot of hits in the third and fourth sets, and in the first couple of sets they were letting the ball get down. That always gets in the hitter’s head (when she thinks), ‘I just had my hardest shot and they dug it up — what do I do next?’”
Marshfield appeared to shake off the third and was in control much of the fourth set, leading 18-11 late on a kill by Heyer before La Grande rallied. The Tigers got within 19-16 on an ace by Justice and pulled even at 21-21 after a Seavert kill and an errant attack by Marshfield. The Pirates briefly retook the lead before La Grande scored the final four points to even the match.
“We started picking up their hard balls on defense (and) we started blocking a little bit better as the day went on, so it slowed them down. That kind of started to get in their head a little bit,” Becker-Bisenius said. “That helped give us that momentum. We’re scrappy, and we can dig a lot of (hits) that you don’t think are going to be dug.”
That fact was evidenced on the stat sheet, with the Tigers collecting 121 digs on the match. Along with Houston and Justice, Seavert, who also had 13 kills, helped key the back line with 28 digs. Jacie Howton and Kenzie Williams both added double-doubles, with Howton tallying 20 assists and 14 digs and Williams adding 16 assists and 11 digs.
“It was our hustle plays and our determination during that last game, just the hunger to win,” Houston said of her team’s comeback.
The effort in the rally fired up the LHS fan base, which Becker-Bisenius credited for giving the Tigers extra fuel. The crowd was particularly raucous in the latter stages of the fourth set, ratcheting up with each point in the final set and going into delirium on the winning kill.
“I’m so excited how many people came out to cheer our team on today. Our crowd was fantastic,” she said. “That helped us win big time. We had tons of people here and they were loud. We play well when our crowd is cheering.”
The Tigers (17-5 overall) will face Valley Catholic in the quarterfinals Friday at Forest Grove.