2022 Arizona girls volleyball 4A-6A state finals: After 43 years, Horizon coach retires with title

The AIA girls' volleyball championships for 2A-6A wrapped up on Saturday, Nov. 12 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

6A State Championship

Late Saturday night, the Arizona high school volleyball season met its crescendo. One more set; 15 more points. That was all that would decide the 6A title. In this sport, there is no more pressure-packed situation.

And yet, on its sideline, Corona del Sol danced. With Sweet Caroline blaring over the portable speakers inside Arizona Veterans Coliseum, the Aztecs jumped up and down, waving their arms, turning the party on. In that moment, their coach, Ben Maxfield, knew what the fifth set would hold.

“I was like, we are golden,” Maxfield said.

Indeed, the Aztecs were. With a dominant, 15-6 final set, they beat two-time reigning champion Hamilton (19-25, 25-15, 22-25, 25-16, 15-6) and closed the door on the third title in program history.

Maxfield knew this was a possibility as early as last fall, when Corona del Sol went up, 2-0, on No. 1 seed Sandra Day O’Connor in the state semifinals before losing in five. At the time, it was a crushing blow, especially for the five seniors who played that night.

But in the long run, Maxfield knew that experience would pay off.

“That really helped us mature,” Maxfield said. “So when we get in situations like this, if we keep grinding, then we're gonna be okay. We're gonna figure it out.”

On Saturday, that’s exactly what transpired.

According to Maxfield, Corona del Sol grew into the game, getting used to the positioning needed to defend Hamilton’s unorthodox offensive schemes. But just as importantly, the Aztecs remained calm both times they went down a set.

As senior outside hitter Kierstyn Barton put it, their mentality was that, as the top seed, they had the advantage. With that confidence came energy.

“Energy brings us out of ruts,” Barton said. “… And that really showed in the fourth set and the fifth set.”

That, and having their best player dominate in the way Barton did. In the fourth set, she racked up six kills to keep the match alive. Then, in the final, abbreviated set, she knocked down kills on five of Corona del Sol’s 15 points.

With that, the Aztecs were champions again.

5A State Championship

Valorie McKenzie of Horizon High School, right, celebrates her teams 4A title after beating Millennium High School in a three set sweep during the State girls volleyball championships at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Phoenix.
Valorie McKenzie of Horizon High School, right, celebrates her teams 4A title after beating Millennium High School in a three set sweep during the State girls volleyball championships at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Phoenix.

When Valorie McKenzie began coaching, Jimmy Carter was still in office. Title IX was eight years old. Volleyball was in its 13th year as an AIA sport. Not only were her players not born yet, some of their parents weren’t either.

The 43 intermittent years have, inevitably, brought peaks and valleys. The joy of Horizon’s first championship back in 2009 will forever live in McKenzie’s mind. The coronations that followed in 2010, 2012 and 2021 will, too, because they all do.

None, though, are quite as special as Saturday, when Horizon beat Millennium in four sets (25-23, 22-25, 28-26, 25-18) to claim the 5A state championship. When McKenzie — who announced her retirement earlier this season — walked off the court one last time, she did so holding a championship trophy.

“This one just has a little bit deeper place in my heart,” McKenzie said.

That significance is, in no small part, because McKenzie didn’t see this one coming.

The Huskies lost seven players from last year’s team, including star outside hitter Taylor Johnson. Rarely does that much roster turnover birth a state championship. Over the summer, though, they added Teraya Sigler — an All-Arizona selection as a freshman — via transfer from Phoenix Country Day, as well as four other varsity players.

Shortly after that cohort became eligible midseason, Horizon meshed into a championship contender, which brought it to Saturday night at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

There, Sigler took over.

On the night, she recorded 27 kills — her most in a match this season. In the critical third set, with the match tied 1-1 and Horizon facing a set point, Sigler promptly knocked down three kills in four points, putting Horizon on the brink of a 2-1 lead. A point later, they did just that, establishing a lead from which they never looked back.

“Teraya has an amazing overall ability of every aspect of her game,” McKenzie said. “Digging, passing, blocking, hitting. She has a great court awareness and game awareness. She's a very intelligent player.”

As rewarding as the title is for Sigler and her teammates, though, its significance — even for them — lies in the coach they won it for.

“When we found out that she was retiring, we said it right there in that practice: ‘Hey, we're gonna win her a championship,’” Sigler said. “It's bittersweet, I don't want her to leave, but I'm happy that she got to come make an impact on all of us.”

4A State Championship

All the way back in June, two months before the high school volleyball season was set to begin, Jennifer Gonzales delivered her Estrella Foothills team a message.

“If we're gonna win it, it's gonna be this year,” Gonzales said.

The response from her players was simple: “Yep, we’re on it.”

On Saturday night at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Wolves made that a reality. They beat Arcadia in four sets (25-20, 25-18, 22-25, 25-22) to claim the 4A state championship — the first in school history.

The last time Estrella Foothills was on this stage, it lost a five-set heartbreaker to Greenway. Even in defeat, though, Gonzales could sense something special was coming. That night, three freshmen appeared for the Wolves.

Three years later, that class — now seniors — provided the fulcrum of a championship team. This fall, 11 seniors contributed for the Wolves as they stormed to a 28-1 regular season. Although that record included two wins over No. 1 seed Salpointe Catholic, Estrella Foothills was bumped to the No. 3 seed in the state tournament, a frustrating seed for a team that hoped to host a home semifinal.

The Wolves, though, didn’t need homecourt advantage to make their mark felt in the 4A tournament. They lost just one set on the way to Saturday’s championship game.

“We'll beat them here, we'll beat them there,” Gonzales said.

Early on, the championship looked like it would be similarly straightforward. In the third set, though, Arcadia made its charge, guided by the steadying presence of senior setter Tatum Longnecker, who finished with 34 assists.

The fourth set was also competitive for the most part until, one final time, Estrella Foothills pulled away — once again buoyed by its seniors. Of the 11 players to play Saturday, seven were seniors. And of the four who recorded at least 12 kills, three — Lala Florance-Littles, Sage Chittester and Angelee Bawek — were seniors.

It was, though, a freshman who provided the afternoon’s final exclamation. With the fifth set at 24-22, Sadie Snyder ranged to her right, rose up and batted a decisive kill into the middle of the floor.

With that, the Wolves were, at last, state champions.

“I am so excited,” Bawek said. “I was there my freshman year when we won runner-up. I wanted to go out on a high. I know all my other 10 seniors, with this being our last season, we all just wanted this so bad. I don't think there was a team that could have wanted it more than us.”

Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and the Arizona Diamondbacks. He can be reached by email at theo.mackie@gannett.com and on Twitter @theo_mackie.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 2022 Arizona high school girls volleyball championships