Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Mariah Williams stood in a cold, dark and nearly empty hallway outside the North Medford High gymnasium on Wednesday and let herself forget about the pain she was feeling.
"Given the fact that nobody expected us to do anything and to take second in our conference, there were definitely a lot of accomplishments this season," the Black Tornado senior outside hitter said.
But the fresh sting of her team's five-set loss to Southridge and the physical toll that plantar fasciitis had taken on her eventually caught up with Williams, who slipped away to an adjacent office to be with her teammates as the tears turned on.
Emotion ruled the night during North's wild-and-crazy, back-and-forth Class 6A first-round state playoff volleyball match, which the Skyhawks eked out 25-18, 17-25, 25-27, 25-16, 15-5.
Southridge, a hard-hitting team that finished fifth in the Metro League, will travel to play Roseburg in the second round of the playoffs on Saturday. The Indians swept Grant on Wednesday.
For the Black Tornado, it was a sad final chapter to an otherwise positive 2011 tale: North finished 14-8 overall and 6-2 in the Southern Oregon Hybrid, good for second place. Last year, the program went 4-15 and placed fourth in the five-team league.
"Overall you go from a losing season like last year to second in the conference and being in the first round of the state playoffs and battling a really good team," North head coach Erika Wright said. "There are a lot of goods to be said about that."
At the end of the Black Tornado's road were two relentless Southridge hitters: Nicole Rigoni, who finished with 16 kills, 31 assists and 17 digs, and Gloria Valusek, who had 14 kills.
Still, North gave the Skyhawks all they could handle with big efforts from sophomore outside hitter Katy Carter (13 kills, 21 digs), Williams (12 kills, 18 digs) and senior middle blocker Caitlin Barrie (10 kills, five blocks).
But in the fifth set, North simply fizzled. Southridge (10-15) raced out to a 5-1 lead, forcing the Black Tornado to call a timeout. The road team, which arrived in Medford on Tuesday, sealed the deal with a 5-0 run that saw a few North hitting errors.
"You could definitely tell in about the fifth game they wanted it," Williams said of Southridge. "We wanted it more, but they showed it more, talked more, played harder. I know our team wanted it just as much but they turned up the intensity and went hard for it and they got it."
The third set may have been the wildest of them all. North used a crucial 8-2 run to turn a 17-11 deficit into a match tied at 19. The Black Tornado and Skyhawks then engaged in a tug-of-war that ended with Williams knocking over two powerful kills to put her team up 26-25 and 27-25.
"With that many rallies, it just comes down to the team that pushes harder," Carter said.
The combination of the Skyhawks' strong outside hitting game and defense and a handful of mishits by North proved costly in a contest that was mostly airtight.
"This was one of the first games we've played where we faced really talented outsides who can really adjust to whatever you give them," Williams said. "Usually it's more of a middle scenario. They had some outstanding outsides."
For North, Emily Carlson had four kills and seven blocks and Emily Otoski added 39 assists and 11 digs.
Libero Madi Lynn recorded 27 assists and Kelli Derrah added 17 digs and seven kills for Southridge, whose coach was complimentary afterward.
"North is tough," Southridge head coach Brooke Mayo said. "They are really aggressive, they have great hitters and they made us adjust a lot."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org