There’s nothing like getting a group of friends together to play their favorite sport and taking on the best teams.
That’s, in essence, what Northwest Christian’s volleyball team has done. The Crusaders are led by seven seniors who have played together at the school for six years, and in most cases known each other longer.
“What’s fun about it is we’ve grown up together since seventh grade,” said senior Kristen Murray. “We get to help the underclassmen by becoming leaders.”
On the court, Murray is the leader. She and fellow senior Courtney Samudio are the team captains, but as the team’s setter, Murray has more responsibility in organizing the squad.
The normally laid-back Glendale resident handles this task with aplomb.
“Kristen’s kind of a quiet leader, except when she’s on the floor,” said coach Beth Lemke. “She’s a great leader on campus and in the classroom, too.”
Murray and Samudio are a powerful attack combo on the court, allowing Northwest Christian to step up against higher-level competition.
The Crusaders went 17-0 against 2A competition and finished second in the power points in that division, but their favorite moments this year have come when matched up against 5A and 4A powers.
They’ve played in these tournaments for several years, but this Northwest Christian team made a breakthrough in the final week of September. The Crusaders knocked off Cactus in the semifinals and Scottsdale Chaparral in the finals to win the Cactus Shadows Falcon Classic Tournament.
Murray and Samudio made the all tournament team.
“Since we are 2A, a lot of people don’t expect too much from us,” Murray said. “I think we’ve earned the respect of bigger teams. Our team comes together in situations like that.”
The team is coming off an even bigger tournament, the 56-team multi-state Nike Tournament of Champions in the East Valley. Northwest Christian went 0-3 in pool play, including a loss to the eventual champion, La Jolla (Calif.) Country Day.
In the consolation bracket, the girls rebounded, winning all three games — including a straight sets victory over Las Vegas power Bishop Gorman.
In the top Arizona tournament, the Goldwater Invitational, the Crusaders pushed the two defending 5A champions, Phoenix Xavier Prep and Phoenix Horizon, before losing. Northwest Christian took down 5A-I school Tucson Salpointe Catholic in this competition.
“It’s been an honor to be invited to those big tournaments,” Lemke said. “It was a thrill for us to win at Cactus Shadows this year. That was one of the goals they wrote down at the beginning of the year. Playing bigger, better, stronger teams makes you better.”
With that record, winning a 2A state championship should be a breeze, right? Not exactly.
Chandler Valley Christian and Tempe Prep can provide a challenge. And then there’s Thatcher.
This Eastern Arizona powerhouse knocked out Northwest Christian in the 2008 semifinals and the 2009 finals, both times in five games. And those opening three losses in the Nike tournament — one of those was to Thatcher by a 25-21, 25-23 score.
Murray was not part of the 2007 state champion team. While a matchup with top seeded Thatcher at state (Thursday through Saturday in Prescott Valley) is in the back of her mind, she knows the Crusaders have to win three time to get there.
“We have to focus on the games leading up to Thatcher,” Murray said.
That tournament will be the last of Murray’s competitive volleyball career, save for any competition with her club Zia.
She will not play in college — Murray said she may go to the University of Arizona — but will continue to follow the sport, along with her beloved Duke basketball team.
Her coach said Murray is going out on top.
“Her volleyball game has improved amazingly,” Lemke said. “The strides she’s made have been what every coach wants. Athleticism is what got her a spot early. Her years in club helped her polish the volleyball skills. (Murray’s and Samudio’s) leadership has carried this team this season.”