If a Cactus volleyball team led by 10 seniors is to break through and hang a banner, it has to be now.
Judging by Thursday's quarterfinal performance, the Cobras can make that final step. Cactus (20-6), the No. 1 seed in 4A-II, was in control for most of the match with No. 8 Flagstaff (20-8), winning 25-20, 25-17, 25-17.
Familiar roadblock and No. 5 seed Chandler Seton Catholic stands in the way again. The teams will reprise their 2009 state final matchup — won 3-1 by the Sentinels — this time in the semifinals at 2 p.m. Saturday at Peoria High School, 11200 N. 83rd Ave.
"I think (we) have a bit more confidence and grit coming into this one," Cactus coach Lindsay Walls said. "We always a motto on out shirts and this year one of the girls said 'let's put AWS — Actually Win State.' It's like you know what, we're done with this. We're going to get it done."
The Cobras started off sloppy, but consecutive kills from the back row by seniors Chelsea Phillips and Peyton Ashfield tied the first game at 5 and started a 9-2 run for Cactus.
"Chelsea played great tonight," Walls said. "Those back-row attacks don't always go as you plan, so when that happens I think it just fires everyone up around you."
As they would in the two following games, Cactus took advantage of Flagstaff's mistakes and forced several with a consistent block.
Offensively, Phillips led the way in game one with three kills and a solid run of serving. Fellow seniors Lindsey Abrahmson and Nicole Goss chipped in two kills apiece.
Cactus built a 23-14 lead, but almost lost it once junior Christian Otzen started serving. She keyed a run of six points with an ace and several other serves that were tough for the Cobras to convert into an attack.
"In a couple of timeouts I said, 'we have to force a side out right away. We can't afford to let them have three or four points in a row," Walls said. "Our passers buckled down and did a much better job getting the ball to our setters."
Goss broke the string with a kill and senior Emma Maynes capped the game by catching the Eagles out of position.
Maynes, as she would three other times Thursday, saw a hole in the defense and set the ball over the net on the second hit instead of setting up a teammate. All four times she did this, the Cobras won the point.
"I just try to mix it up and see if they're out of position," Maynes said. "I try to catch them on their heels, so I can tip it over."
In the second game, Cactus slowly pulled away as Abrahmson took over at net. She picked up four of her match-high 10 kills and two of her four blocks.
Abrahmson and her frontline mates also picked up several points by changing the Eagles' attack angles, which led to a bevy of Flagstaff hits out of bounds or into the net.
"I think they had to be hesitant before they hit," Abrahmson said. "We're intimidating at the net, with me and Kinsey (Minter) at the same time, they've really got to hit around us to get a decent point."
The Cobras tightened up their return game after another struggle with a tricky server, this time senior Sydney Collins. Abrahmson followed a block with an emphatic kill to make it 23-16, and junior Carly Beer finished it with an ace.
Early in the third game, Flagstaff played like a team with its season on the line. But Abrahmson, Goss and Phillips proved too potent of an attack to hold back. On the night, Phillips added nine kills.
Cactus' defense was sound in all phases, as Collins and Otzen tied for the team lead with a mere four kills each.
"Briah (Hudson), our right front helping out in the middle took that much more away," Walls said.
Going into the match, Flagstaff appeared to be an unusually tough No. 8 seed. The Eagles also had reason to be confident — in their last visit to Cactus Sept. 7, they pushed the Cobras to five sets.
"In the regular season, we killed them in the first two games but they came back strong," Abrahmson said. "I was kind of nervous, thinking we can't let that happen again, especially at state."