The great teams always find ways to win without their best players.
That's what Centennial did Tuesday night, with second place Sunrise Mountain visiting no less. The Coyotes tapped its depth when senior hitter Mackenzie Willneff was scratched after injuring herself during warmups.
Centennial Coach Carly Bourland said it wasn't anything serious, and if this was a state tournament game "she'd be out there."
However, the Coyotes responded without one their floor leaders, taking a 3-1 (17-25, 25-23, 25-21, 25-15) win against Sunrise Mountain (9-4, 5-2).
The win put Centennial (14-1, 7-0) into a command position atop the 5A-II Desert West region. The Coyotes would have to drop it's final three matches (at Ironwood, vs. La Joya Community, at Tolleson) while the Mustangs must win it's final three, all at home (La Joya Community, Tolleson, Westview), to steal the region title from their inter-city rival.
Bourland cautioned that "we still have two weeks, but then added: "However, I think this win tonight really puts us in control."
Sunrise Mountain served notice early, taking the first game by mixing its offense well with tips and kills from a variety of attackers, including 6-foot, 1-inch junior Katie Rutherford. It was the Mustang junior's sets that gave the offense a chance to find holes in the Centennial defense and open a 5-point lead midway through game one, 17-12.
The Coyotes answered on senior Jessica Youngberg's kill off a set from sophomore Dana Gundrum, but Sunrise Mountain came back on a tip from Katelin Bowler. Youngberg blocked the tip, but the ball rolled off the net and fell on Centennial's side for Mustang point, making it 18-13.
The two sides traded points on kills from Bowler, and Coyote junior Carly Eddington. They would earn another point on senior Megan Rhoades' spike, however, on the next serve, Centennial passed into the net for a side out. Sunrise Mountain would go on a 5-1 run to close out the game, converting on a pair of Rutherford kills and a block against Coyote sophomore Emylee Schlink.
"It's a nice situation to enter," said Sunrise Mountain Coach Tony Gale. "For me, being my first year with this team, and having a young team led by a junior, it gives us a good foundation to build on."
Centennial regrouped in the second game on the strength of its service and capitalizing on Mustang errors. Youngberg and junior Maggie Matheson served aces, both falling short of the back line defense. The Coyote defense also regrouped for game two, with junior Brooke Pottle converting a kill off the net and senior libero Devon Maloney making a diving save that set up another point and forced a Centennial side out.
Schlink helped Centennial open a 6-point lead midway through the game two, with a hit that Rutherford blocked, however, the ball fell wide of the linem, giving the Coyotes an 11-5 lead.
Sunrise Mountain would climb back within striking distance by mounting a 5-1 run while led by a pair of Rutherford kills, making it 13-11. Gundrum would retake the Coyote momentum as she received a pass, back set the ball to the right for Youngberg who crushed a spike that split the Mustang front and back lines.
The teams would exchange side outs over the next five points until Youngberg tipped a pass into the net to make it a 19-17 game for the Coyotes. With Mustang junior Nicole Battle on serve, Sunrise Mountain would go on a 6-0 run, for a 21-19 lead, including an ace that went off a Pottle dig attempt to break a 19-19 tie.
The late two-point defecit didn't phase Centennial, as it forced a side out using solid defense, including a diving dig by junior Katie Mohn and a block by Youngberg against a Rutherford kill attempt that fell out of Sunrise Mountain's reach.
Pottle was the difference down the stretch for the Coyotes as she had a pair of kills and kept a volley alive with a block. The Mustangs junior hitter crushed a spike on the return, but a diving save by Maloney set up a pass to Gundrum who notched a kill into the back corner to the tie the game at 23.
Pottle then tipped the ball over for the go ahead point, and then her running save into the Coyote bench became the game winner as Sunrise Mountain's errant pass went into the stands to clinch game two.
"We struggled early," Bourland said. "We went with a 5-1 setup instead of our normal 6-2 because we were without Mackenzie."
The Coyotes took control of game of the third game early, and would open a 7-point lead late on a kill from Eddington, which she took from a Sunrise Mountain pass that sailed over the net, making it 20-13. Rutherford would halt a 6-1 run with a tip, but on the next serve, Eddington would spike another point to push the lead back to seven.
The Centennial junior along with Colette Siroky, who was announced as the starter, saw more playing time than normal with Willneff out. The bench, overall, had a good game, Bourland said.
"With Mackenzie out, we had some players get some good time out there. It gave many of them some good experience heading into the state tournament."
"You don't want to lose someone like Mackenzie, but I was glad to get out there and help," Eddington said.
The Mustangs hung close much of game four, but Centennial's experience surfaced as the Coyotes won 13 of the last 15 points to take the match. Pottle's offense and Schlink's blocks proved key for the Coyotes, as the game turned on an epic point. With Matheson on serve, the return pass came to Pottle who hit into a block by senior Jenna Brownlee. Schlink would return the block against junior Kalynn Egea's kill attempt, and the offense came around to Pottle who tried a tip that was returned by Egea. Pottle would try another tip that again was sent back by Egea. The Coyotes worked the ball around to Siroky who hit the ball over. A Sunrise Mountain defender made a play on the volley, but the errant dig fell out of bounds for the 18-14 lead.
From there, the Coyotes would use a 7-1 run to close out the match.
"We just didn't execute tonight, and they did," Gale said. "We have some work ahead of us. We had a real good first game, but it was disappointing that we didn't follow up on it. Taking that first game sets a good tone. We're a relatively young team, so this was a good experience that we can grow on and will make us stronger."