YAKIMA — For those of you who hadn’t received the memo, Pomeroy High School has quite the volleyball team.
The Pirates have placed third or higher in the Washington Class 1B state finals each of the last six years, and improved their results from 2017 when Amy Smith took the reins from longtime coach Jim Greene.
On Friday, Pomeroy took a semifinal victory over Almira-Coulee-Hartline, and then vanquished its arch nemesis, Oakesdale, in a five-set thriller to bring home the state championship from the SunDome.
The Oakesdale Nighthawks have been the foremost 1B powerhouse and winners of the last four league titles.
Oakesdale has ended Pomeroy’s championship hopes three times in the last five years, and the last time the Pirates took home the 1B title in 2014, Oakesdale wasn’t even a participant in the state tournament.
However, before the stage can be set for the championship, it is worth adding the context of the Pirates’ semifinal match, because they drew the other pre-eminent 1B superpower that comprise the “Big Three,” Almira-Coulee-Hartline.
ACH is the only other team to have competed in the 1B title match in the last six years, and last year’s semifinals saw ACH conquer Pomeroy in the full five sets.
After both teams swept their first two bracket opponents rather convincingly here on Thursday, this promised to be an instant classic.
And from first serve, the match proved to be everything it was ballyhooed to be.
Each team took turns making runs and fought tooth-and-nail. It took ACH scoring nine points more than the required 25 to win a set, but they finally pulled away from the Pirates, taking the first set with a score of 34-32.
Pomeroy would thunder back, though, taking two very convincing sets (25-19, 25-15) for themselves to force the Warriors to the brink, and they showcased their impressive defensive power and athleticism in the process, thwarting numerous ACH attacks at the net.
The Warriors found a few gaps in the fourth set, though, as they took the set with a vengeance, punishing a few key Pirate errors and forcing a tiebreaker set with a 25-14 pasting.
Pomeroy tightened up in the fifth set, though, taking an early lead and refusing to give it up late, moving on with a 15-11 final set and setting up for, as one event staff said in passing, “the only match-up it could have been.”
“This was a hard-fought game for both teams,” coach Smith remarked. “We are very evenly matched. I was very proud of the girls for persevering and advancing to the championship game.”
Maddy Dixon led the Pirates in kills with 22 and had five blocks, Heidi Heytvelt had 30 assists and 13 digs, Keely Maves led her team in blocks with six, and McKenzie Watko and Sydney Watko each came up with 10 digs.
In the state championship match, the Pirates knew what they were up against.
Young or not, this Oakesdale team was absolutely the powerhouse they had been the last four years, and the stage had officially been set for a fairy tale ending to the 1B finals.
Pomeroy came out firing to open up the title match, opening up big leads and holding off the Nighthawks in each of the first two sets.
The defense held steady, and the offense rode middle blockers Dixon and Sydney Watko to a pair of 25-21 set wins.
Then, they took a big lead in the third set, going up 19-8.
Mistakes started to pile up for the Pirates, and the Nighthawks made adjustments to their strategy to account for the Pomeroy attack.
Suddenly, the open areas that the Pirates had been making use of were shut down.
Even the dumps along the corners of the net weren’t there anymore.
The Pirates had no quarter, and Oakesdale began their comeback.
They started by making a spirited run to overtake Pomeroy in the first set, relying on solid receiving and a war-of-attrition strategy to force the Pirates into repeated mistakes.
The first order of business had been attended to; the Nighthawks took the third set 25-22 to keep themselves in the match.
The fourth set was much of the same.
Pomeroy had tightened up on their errors, and every rally seemed to stretch longer than the one previous.
Ultimately, though, Oakesdale pulled away to knot the match at two sets apiece, 25-20.
“It wouldn’t have been our season if we had beaten them in straight sets, though,” said coach Smith.
It’s hard to argue with the coach; these iterations of the Pirates and Nighthawks are no strangers to each other, having already played three matches, with Pomeroy taking the first of the season, and Oakesdale having won the second and the district championship in increasingly close fashion.
So here, with 15 points left to decide which team took home the state title, the Pirates finally broke through, taking a commanding 11-4 lead to corner the Nighthawks once again.
And once again, Oakesdale responded by refusing to be put away, scoring 10 of its own points to two of Pomeroy’s to put the Pirates on the brink of losing their fourth state title in five years.
Coach Smith did refer to her group as “the comeback kids,” though.
“They like to dig themselves a hole and then climb out of it. They’re fighters and I knew they had it in them.”
And just one point away from defeat, when it mattered most, the Pirates’ experience paid off.
They beat the Nighthawks at their own game, receiving attacks expertly and forcing the Nighthawks into errors.
Three points later, the final whistle blew and Pomeroy could celebrate their first title since 2014.
“This was by far the most exciting match of our season,” Smith said. “We started off great, winning the first two sets, and then Oakesdale came back and got the next two.
“We fought hard in the last set to win the championship,” she commented. “Our girls played with a ton of heart all day today, and I couldn’t be more proud of them. Our team motto for the year was ‘Rise Up’ as we started the year off with adversity, having our starting setter suffer an ACL injury that put her out for the season.
“We talked about rising up to the challenges we faced and overcoming them,” Smith said. “The girls did that throughout the season and definitely throughout the state tournament. Each and every one of them fought hard and deserve this championship.
“We are excited to bring the trophy home to Pomeroy.”
Dixon had 18 kills and five blocks in the title match, with Maves and Teagan Steel each blocking five shots.
Heytvelt led the Pirates with 33 assists, three aces and 15 digs in the match, and Alyssa Wolf had 14 digs.
The state title run couldn’t have come at a better time, either; the Pirates carried six seniors on their roster this year, so to finally pay their effort off with a place on the state championship trophy “feels great,” said Smith.
“We have a great program, but we’ve just taken a lot of seconds in recent years,” she said. “This is a great group, though, and it feels good getting these kids a championship.”
That’s not to say there’s nothing to hope for looking to next season, though.
Junior setter Emma Severs sat out the season with a torn ACL, and coach Smith said she’s “excited to have her back next year. She’s a great volleyball player and a great kid.”
The Pomeroy Pirates finish this season with the title, an overall record of 26-4, a district record of 11-1, and a legacy as a team that learned to conquer the mistakes they made and push through to victory.