The Saratoga Sun -

Lady Tigers claw way to state play

Encampment defeats Baggs on way to 2-1 weekend

 

The Encampment Lady Tigers made the trek to regional competition in Lander where they faced the two toughest teams in their conference-and arguably the state. The tough competition did not impede the Tigers, who won a place at State finals next week in Casper.

The key to the team's success, according to head coach Robin O'Leary, was the ability of the players to remain flexible so they can cover whatever role they find themselves in, as well as their phenomenal teamwork that allows the team to operate as a unit rather than a collection of people each doing their thing.

"For one reason or another this year, we've had to run a different lineup every game and it was not different at regionals," O'Leary said. "We had a different starting group for all three games, and all of the lineups seemed to work really well together and they went with the flow.

"That's really hard to do as a high school team."

In their first round at regionals, the Tigers took on the Lady Rams of Dubois, whom they swept rather resolutely in a three-game match with scores of 25-21, 25-15 and 25-18.

During the game with Dubois, one of Encampment's more seasoned players, Hailey Barkhurst, sat out due to issues with her ankles. While not able to make her usual strong showing on behalf of her team, the two freshmen appointed to cover for her did exceptionally well, O'Leary said, exemplifying the team's flexibility and ability to work as a team.

The younger players stood the line with their more experienced fellow athletes Paige Powell and Cheyanne Jordan, with Powell being a strong scorer and Jordan working hard to set the ball for the striking player.

The win against Dubois set the stage for a showdown between the Lady Tigers and the Lady Rattlers of Little Snake River Valley school in Baggs, the defending state champions who took the title last year after Encampment stumbled at State Finals at the end of a near-perfect season.

This year, the Lady Tigers struggled against the Lady Rattlers. Over the course of the regular season, the teams faced one another three times, and the Rattlers won two.

But for the Baggs game, Barkhurst was back in. "We played Hailey Barkhurst in a position she hadn't played in ten weeks I think," O'Leary said. "We played her outside instead of middle so we could use her in our two-person serve-receive."

She, paired with Powell and the rest of the team, delivered the goods against the Rattlers. Even though the Tigers gave up the first game of the match with a score of 17-25, the team did not let that set the tempo for the rest of the game, and swept the Lady Rattlers in the next three games 25-21, 25-16 and 26-24.

According to O'Leary, the team's blocking was off during the match against the Rattlers, but fortunately the team's back line came out and dug the ball to keep things going in the Tigers' favor.

"That's the one thing that I can say for the team so far this year is ... a lot of the times we've lost that first game but they don't let that predict the rest of the game for them; they fight to the very end," O'Leary said.

The team made an impressive 69 digs against the Rattlers, with Barkhurst and Riley Little leading the streak of Tigers with 14 apiece, ankles notwithstanding. The team made 14 blocks, with Powell making the most with 5.

The third, and final, game of the weekend for Encampment put them up against another conference heavy hitter, the Cokeville Panthers. The Panthers have also been a contender for the number one rank in the conference this season, and the Tigers already fell to Cokeville once this season.

And they did again, but only after giving the Panthers a run for their money; Encampment lost the game by tight scores of 23-25, 25-27 and 20-25. Even though they lost the regional championship, the team still earned its right to play at state.

In the Cokeville game, Barkhurst was again taken out of the rotation of Encampment's usual weapons in order to allow her rest. "Our main goal going into regionals was to make it to state," O 'Leary said. "We knew we were going to have play Hailey sparingly so if we made it to state, she'd be able to participate this coming weekend as well and not injure her further."

Again, younger players filled the void left by Barkhurst, a senior, and did so with aplomb, according to O'Leary, giving the Encampment bench even more experience as it sets its sights on state. The team's serving during the Cokeville game was off, which made the going tough O'Leary said.

"We hope we got that out of our system," O'Leary said.

Overall though, the team performed well at regionals while facing some of the toughest competition in 1A, and quite possibly the state. At state, Cokeville and Little Snake River will find themselves facing off on the opposite side of the bracket from Encampment, meaning those two teams will get to butt heads while the Tigers face off against some teams they haven't yet met this season.

"There are teams on our side of the bracket we haven't seen yet and that could be a challenge," O'Leary said, adding that Lingle is the top rated team on Encampment's side of the bracket at state, and the team has not yet faced them.

But the concern O'Leary has-that her team might be up against some tactics they are not used to-is tempered a bit by the fact her team has shown itself very adaptable and very flexible.

"In the same sense, they haven't seen us, either."

State Finals begin Thursday at the Casper Events Center in Casper, and new champions for the 2017 volleyball season will be crowned Saturday.

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