It looked like an easy sweep but beating a team for the third time this season was anything but – regardless of the score.
Genevieve Pirotte was on target most of the night, getting 19 kills and some key digs in No. 2-seeded Notre Dame’s sweep of NE Valley-rival and No. 7 seed Cactus Shadows.
Thursday’s 25-23, 25-18, 25-16 win puts the Saints in Saturday’s 12 p.m. semifinals against No. 6 Arcadia at Mesquite H.S., with the championship match is Tuesday.
“It is so unreal,” the senior Pirotte said. “I can’t even tell you I am so excited. This is everything I have ever wanted.”
The Saints used their power game to near-perfection on Thursday, with setter Ali Svornic finding Pirotte on the left side all night. Even when Cactus Shadows got a block on Pirotte, her teammates often dug it out and regrouped.
“She was on fire,” Svornic said of Pirotte. “I don’t know what I would do without her.”
When Pirotte went to the back row, Juliana Brutsche and left-handed freshman Willow Johnson filled in capably and kept Cactus Shadows from any sustained momentum.
The Falcons had seen the Saints twice already this season.
“It’s definitely a lot harder because they know you and they watch your film and they are ready, they know who to stop and put down,” Pirotte said. “But we came out with a lot of energy and that’s how we beat them.”
The senior-laden Saints have been on a roll, having not lost a set since its Oct. 9 lost at Tucson Ironwood Ridge.
They appeared on a mission after being a No. 1 seed a year ago but losing in the quarterfinals to Peoria Liberty. The Saints have not reached the semifinal round since 2008.
“When it comes to under-pressure plays, I think we are really good at putting it away because we have a lot of seniors and we really want it this year,” Pirotte said.
About the only time the Falcons found any success was abandoning the net battle and trying to find spots with dinks and tips. Cactus Shadows stayed close in the first two sets doing that but Pirotte and the Saints made the adjustment by the final set and were on their way.
“That was an adjustment that we hadn’t really planned for that we made,” Notre Dame coach James Felton said. “It took a few of them to go down before we actually made that adjustment. Thankfully we did.”
The Falcons rallied to get within 22-21 in the first set but kills by Johnson turned them way. In the second game, Cactus Shadows cut the lead to 14-13 on a Carly Lenzen dink but then unforced errors allowed Notre Dame to run off five straight points to take control.
“They didn’t make a lot of mistakes and we did,” Cactus Shadows coach Michelle Gardiner said. “Our ball control players were a little bit off tonight and our setter and our top middle are usually in-sync and (they were) definitely not tonight.”
In the final set, the Saints opened up a 14-5 lead with Svornic finding Pirotte, Brutsche and Johnson and the rattled Falcons couldn’t come back. In the final points, even miscues seemed to go Notre Dame’s way. Junior Maddi Spina made a kill on a return right at the net that gave the Saints a 22-14 lead and Lenzen’s miss at the net ended the night.
Senior outside hitter Jennifer Long was a thorn in the Saints’ side much of the night, getting 10 kills for the Falcons, which missed the playoffs last year.
“I definitely think it’s overachieving for this team because they have come so far, Gardner said. "I just hate that it had to end on this note."