After nearly finding its way through the forest Wednesday, Cactus' volleyball team seemed lost near the end of the path.
The Cobras battled back on their home floor, breezing in the third game, and battling past a tall, talented Cave Creek Cactus Shadows squad in an electric fourth game.
With a memorable comeback in its grasp, Cactus laid an egg, falling behind 5-0. Cactus Shadows (24-9) closed out Cactus (19-6) to win 25-18, 25-19, 11-25, 24-26, 15-8
"I told them that to fight back so hard means nothing if you don't win it in the end," Cactus coach Lindsay Walls said. "Yes it means something to get yourself to that point, but why fight so hard if you're not going to continue to fight hard in the last set."
Though they won't have to get past the Falcons to win a state title, Cactus Shadows is a good example of the type of team Cactus must beat to claim the 4A-II crown.
The Falcons entered the match as the No. 1 team in the 4A-I power rankings and pose the biggest threat to two-time defending champion Phoenix Sunnyslope — with an emphasis on biggest.
Cactus Shadows rotates in senior Shan England (6-4) and sophomore Carly Lenzen (6-1) to form an imposing front wall. Coupled with lanky 6-foot all-court players Summer Anderson, Suzi DeSalvo and Kalyn Peters, the Falcons have a wealth of attacking options and an imposing blocking corps.
After spotting Cactus a 9-2 advantage in the first game, Cactus Shadows regained its footing defensively and improved its transition game. The result was a run of 12 consecutive points and 11 kills.
Anderson and England controlled the second game with three kills apiece. The Falcons took the Cobras out of their offense, changing attack angles and causing Cactus to try more tips at the net. The Cobras continued to have trouble slowing Cactus Shadows' barrage.
"In defense, we were kind of all over the place," Walls said. "Defensive plays make it a heck of a lot easier to run an offense. Our serve/receive struggled a lot in the first two games."
In the third game, Walls made some lineup changes and the Cobras appeared to loosen up. To that point, senior Kinsey Minter had been the Cactus' only offensive threat with six kills.
In game three, senior Chelsea Phillips came alive with four kills and a tandem block with Minter. Cactus Shadows helped the home team by committing several errors.
"We needed a little bit of a spark from a couple of girls," Walls said. "Our serve/receive picked up in third and fourth game and the girls gained confidence."
That set the stage for a fourth game played with the intensity of a state final. The teams battled back and forth until England's two consecutive kills gave the Falcons a 13-11 lead.
Phillips and Minter responded with scoring spikes to tie. Then, senior middle blocker Lindsey Abrahmson asserted herself with a block after senior Peyton Ashfield and junior Carly Beer sprinted and lunged to work the ball over the net.
Cactus now led 17-15 and Cactus Shadows called a time-out. Abrahmson added a solo block and teamed up with senior Nicole Goss on another block. Cactus lost serve, but Abrahmson snuck in a tip to boost the lead to 20-16.
Down 23-22, the Falcons rebounded with a kill by Anderson and a block by DeSalvo. Abrahmson came back with a tip to tie and rocked the gym on the next point.
Minter's spike was blocked but floated over to the Cactus side in perfect position for Abrahmson, who crushed it down the middle of the court. Minter finished the game with another spike.
Minter led the Cobras with 16 kills, while Abrahmson added five kills four tips and four blocks.
Anderson paced the Falcons, picking up 15 kills and 35 digs. England drilled 14 kills and Lenzen posted 10 kills and four blocks.
Despite the bitter ending, this match can serve as good preparation for next week's 4A-II playoffs. Cactus Shadows is similar in size and style of play to defending 4A-II champ Chandler Seton Catholic.
The loss also reinforced the need for Cactus to limit mistakes against elite opponents.
"Seton for sure has tall girls like Cactus Shadows," Walls said. "It's tough when you play weaker teams in the middle of your season because you start developing bad habits. Then you've got to go back and fix those things at the end because you're playing strong teams, and they're going to call you out a bit."
The Cobras appear likely to hold on to their top spot in the 4A-II power rankings, and will host a first-round playoff game Tuesday night.