From the beginning of the season, the members of the Thunder Ridge High School volleyball team were pursuing a historic accomplishment for their school.
When they wrote down their goals for the school and for the team, they all wrote the same thing: WIN STATE.
“Everyone put that as our top priority, to win state,” Thunder Ridge senior Avery Turnage said Tuesday by phone. “The first thing I wrote down was to create a winning legacy, create a winning culture.”
The Titans accomplished those goals Saturday at Post Falls High School upon defeating defending 5A state runner-up Skyview in four sets, giving Thunder Ridge its first state championship trophy and banner for any sport in its second year of existence.
A dogpile formed among Thunder Ridge players after they won the final set 25-20, and reality didn’t hit Turnage right away.
“It was really surreal,” Turnage said. “At first, I was in shock. I didn’t really realize that it was over. Right when the ball dropped, everybody dropped to the ground and started crying. It was a really big moment for the seniors because it was the last time we’d be playing together and the first time we’d ever gone to state.”
Head coach Keisha Fisher chalked the title up to belief.
“When you have a new program, you have to set the standard,” Fisher said. “You’ve gotta buy in and it’s gotta be the same thing day in and day out. The girls just showed up. They believed the whole time. I feel like we tried to play a tough schedule and play a lot a good teams and hopefully it would help us at state. I felt like if we got to state, we can do something.”
The Titans claimed another first by defeating familiar foe and defending 5A state champion Madison in Saturday’s semifinals to advance to the title match. It was Thunder Ridge’s first win over the Bobcats in seven meetings since the start of the 2018 season. They had last met in the 5A District 5-6 championship game, a five-set win for Madison on Oct. 24 in Rexburg.
Saturday’s match was no less intense than the previous meetings between the teams, either.
“We kinda came in with like a chip on our shoulder,” Turnage said. “We were not gonna lose to them again. Everybody went all in. Nothing dropped and everybody went for every single ball.”
Thunder Ridge had beaten Skyview in four sets in the opening round of the state tournament. The Hawks then worked their way through the loser’s bracket, defeating Eagle, Coeur d’Alene and Lake City to reach the title match versus the Titans.
Having already played the Hawks, the Titans knew what was coming.
“We knew they wouldn’t let us roll over them,” Turnage said. “We knew they were a really good team offensively and we knew kinda how they ran things. We kinda adjusted to that. Everyone had this confident mentality and wanted to bring the first state championship back to Thunder Ridge.”
Turnage had 38 total kills, five aces, five blocks and 16 digs in Saturday’s two matches while Jaycee Weathermon totaled 31 kills, four aces, 25 digs, two blocks and two assists, Brooklyn Rose had 44 digs, 13 assists and two aces, Paige Clark had 29 digs, 41 assists, 12 blocks, 29 kills, and five aces, Janna Weathermon had 48 assists, 20 digs, two kills and two aces and Austyn Landon had two aces, nine kills, six blocks and eight digs.
Fisher, a 2007 Skyline graduate and Idaho’s 2006 Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year, played in the 5A state championship match her senior season at Skyline which ended in a state runner-up finish. She later reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championships at Utah and was a member of Idaho State’s coaching staff when the Bengals won the 2013 Big Sky title to reach the NCAA tournament. She said being part of Thunder Ridge’s title run this season, however, was a completely different experience.
“This one was so special,” Fisher said. “It’s a lot different from a player to a coach. I see the girls at the school every day and they’re just as happy as can be. I’m just lucky to have such a great coaching staff with me and such great kids. At the end of the day, I feel like it’s just about the kids, about the girls. That’s the best thing about it.”
The journey home for the Titans (34-14) took a while. After breaking down in Butte, Mont., Sugar-Salem’s bus picked them up. They were met by a police escort in Idaho Falls, taking them to Thunder Ridge where they arrived around 7 p.m. Sunday to students, friends and family waiting in the parking lot.
Every Thunder Ridge sports program went through ‘firsts’ last school year with new coaches, new systems and the bringing together of students from rival schools Bonneville and Hillcrest. Turnage said the volleyball team’s welcoming approach and desire to set a standard at a new school helped the Titans pursue and ultimately win the school’s first state title.
“I think just every single one of the girls, they’re all really good people,” Turnage said. “We all kinda came in with an open mind, open arms and welcomed each other. We knew it would be up to us to create a culture at Thunder Ridge.”
BONNEVILLE MAKES IT THREE TITLES IN FOUR YEARS
Bonneville’s three-set win over Century on Saturday in the 4A state title match at Coeur d’Alene High School capped an impressive four-year run for the program and for four-year varsity players Alexis McMurtrey, Sadie Lott and Makayla Sorensen.
The title was Bonneville’s third in four years, a run that included four consecutive district titles (two in 5A, two in 4A), four state title game appearances (two 5A, two 4A), 156 total wins and 21 total losses. Saturday’s title also brought Bonneville’s program total to 10, which is the most in District 6 for any volleyball team of any classification, and concluded a state tournament weekend where the Bees did not drop a single set.
Lott, a middle blocker, said she realizes the magnitude and rarity of that kind of run at the high school level more so now as a senior than she did when she was younger.
“Not very many people get to experience that and I think I know now it’s a once in a lifetime thing,” Lott said Tuesday by phone. “To do that three of the four years, I’m super grateful that I had the opportunity to do that.”
Lott said the Bees had a hunch that Century would join them as the last teams standing Saturday. Bonneville lost to Century in last season’s 4A state title match, something that remained fresh in the minds of the returning players. Century had to get past District 3 champion Kuna to reach Saturday’s title match, and it took five sets to get there. Lott said she had a lot of respect for Kuna after seeing that match, and she didn’t really feel nervous having to face the Diamondbacks.
That said, victory didn’t start sinking in for Lott until the final points of the third set versus Century.
“I told (fellow senior) Maddi Pettingill, ‘Three more points, Maddi, and we’re gonna be state champions,” Lott said. “’Two more points, Maddi. One more point, Maddi.’”
Lott added that this title felt better than the two before.
“Losing to Century last year kinda kicked us in the butt and we just wanted to work hard to make sure we got that state championship,” Lott said. “The others were great, they were awesome, but there was something about this season that made it more memorable.”
SUGAR-SALEM CLAIMS THIRD 3A TITLE IN FOUR YEARS IN DEEP FIELD
Sugar-Salem head coach Cami Dodson called Saturday’s four-set win over Fruitland in the 3A state title match Saturday at Lake City High School a ‘fairy tale ending.’
A year earlier, the Diggers had placed second to Filer. Sugar-Salem defeated Filer in Saturday’s semifinals before playing Fruitland for the second time in as many days for the title. The championship was Sugar-Salem’s eighth in program history--second most in District 6 for any classification--and third in four years.
“It was euphoric, honestly,” Dodson said Tuesday by phone. “They could take such a bitter ending and turn it into something good. You can set a goal and you can make it happen.”
Like Sugar-Salem, Filer returned several players from last season. The Diggers played the Wildcats twice in the regular season and won both meetings, which gave them confidence if they met them again at state. They met Fruitland first at state, however, and had not played the Grizzlies before. The Diggers edged the Grizzlies in an epic five-set match, which included a 35-33 second set, to end Friday 2-0.
“That match Friday night was one of the most intense matches I’ve ever been a part of,” Dodson said. “The girls just knew going into the losers bracket is excruciatingly hard to come back and win a title. (The Grizzlies) always are one of the most disciplined programs I’ve ever come across. It was a battle of players, a battle of coaching, everything on the line.”
Dodson said the entire tournament was hard fought for the Diggers. In 2017, Sugar-Salem won all four state matches in three sets each to repeat as state champions. The journey to the most recent title was notably different.
“They feel like they went through the gauntlet,” Dodson said. “I saw my girls’ confidence and zero fear settle into their eyes and they knew what they wanted.”
FIRTH WINS FIRST TITLE IN SIX YEARS
Like Bonneville and Sugar-Salem, Firth turned a second-place finish in 2018 into a state championship in 2019. And like the Bees and Diggers, the Cougars beat the defending state champion on the way to winning the title.
Firth met defending 2A state champion Malad in Saturday’s semifinals at Lakeland High School, beating the Dragons in four sets to reach the title match. Firth and Malad had not met this season before Saturday, but knew each other well from last season.
“We knew it was gonna be a tough match,” Firth coach Elda Park said Tuesday by phone. “The girls just went in really confident this year. Each one of them, they had a job to do. Their goal was to not let a ball touch the ground. They dug everything.”
The Cougars met another 2A powerhouse, Nampa Christian, in the title match after Nampa Christian beat Malad. It was their first meeting since a tournament in Boise in September, where they split a two-set match. Firth claimed the victory Saturday in four sets to give the Cougars their first state title since 2013 and fourth in program history.
Park said her three seniors--Hailey Gee, Jordyn Adams and Kaydee Park--are all four year-varsity players and will be missed. It was furthermore fitting that Adams had the game-winning kill.
“It was amazing,” coach Park said. “Last year, they got second place and this year they wanted that blue trophy. The kids were really determined this year. They just knew they could do it.”
WATERSPRINGS CAPS DOMINANT SEASON WITH SECOND TITLE IN THREE YEARS
The 1A Division II state championship trophy and banner Saturday at Lewiston High School signified more than a second title in three seasons for Watersprings.
It marked multiple endings. The Warriors went 32-2 this fall, with the lone losses coming to the same team: Malad, which placed third in the 2A state tournament. Among those 32 wins were victories over eventual 2A state champion Firth and 2A state runner-up Nampa Christian, as well as some 4A schools. Over the summer, Watersprings also played eventual 3A state champion Sugar-Salem close before falling.
Three days after the season ended, head coach Robyn King said the accomplishments still don’t feel real. She added that she did not anticipate the Warriors to not drop a single set the entire state tournament.
“It was just a really almost like a dream, like you were living through a dream,” King said Tuesday by phone. “The reality of it when you look back on it, how did it possibly happen?
The trophy and banner also brought an end to the high school volleyball careers of seniors Joanna Hayes, Angie Gomez, Rylee Mathison and Abigail Yadon. King said she has enjoyed seeing Hayes experience so much joy her senior season, Gomez be the ‘team cheerleader’ and bringing enormous energy for being five feet tall, Mathison be a student of the game and advise her teammates like a coach on the court and watching Yadon, who missed her entire junior year of sports recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus, become more of a vocal leader.
They are the first group of seniors King has coached all four years. The Warriors went to state each of those years, placing third in even numbered years and winning titles in odd numbered years.
“I will tremendously miss those four kids,” King said. “Their work ethic...that is the No. 1 thing to me as a coach is the work ethic. I don’t need the most talented players. I just need kids who will work hard and I will teach them to play the game.”
When this year’s seniors were freshmen, the Warriors had a seven-member team. King, who coached at larger schools earlier in her career, said coaching at Watersprings has allowed her to teach volleyball to a small group of kids and watching them progress and learn to play together.
“At Watersprings I’ve never made cuts because I’m always hoping I’ve got enough kids for a team,” King said. “The cool thing about it is you can take seven, eight, nine kids who are just average and teach them how to play the game and let them have a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed the challenge.”