With bodies laying out for digs on the court and hurdling the bench for saves, fans could have mistaken the season opener at Centennial High School for a state tournament match.
But all that was on the line Tuesday night was the first ‘W' for the Coyotes or Hamilton.
It was Centennial that notched it's first win of the season, 3-1 (22-25, 25-21, 25-22, 25-14), shaking off early jitters to sweep the final three games of the match.
"This game was huge for us and our confidence," said Coach Carly Bourland. "Last year we lost 15-13 in five games, so it was great to come back and take (the Huskies) in four."
It would figure these two squads would open the season again with another classic opener. However, with strong serving and key hits late by Mackenzie Willneff, Dana Gundrum and Brooke Pottle, the Coyotes were able to flip the tables over last season.
The intensity ratcheted up in the third game where both squads exchanged leads and remained deadlocked at 8. With Willneff serving, Centennial went on a 4-0 run, which saw Pottle blast through a Husky block to make it 12-8, and was capped by Jessica Youngberg's kill that went off a pair of blockers to push the score to 13-8.
However, the Huskies answered with a 5-2 run, using a pair of tips, a block out of bounds by Willneff, and two hits that went long, making it 15-14.
Centennial would lead by no more than three the rest of the way, including a 3-0 Hamilton run after a time out.
The difference may have been a rally that tested both sides' endurance with the Huskies' Katie Peterson and Kylee Kruitbosch saving bullets from Pottle and Gundrum, and Devon Maloney bump passing off kills from the Huskies tall front line of Taryn Salum, Jordyn Moody and Emily Helm. The two teams kept the rally going for nearly 90 seconds until Kruitbosch found a hole past the Coyote front line to drop in a tip, gettig the Huskies to within two, 23-21.
Sensing her girls needed a break, Bourland called a quick time out. After allowing Hamilton it's second straight point to make the set 23-22, Centennial rallied with a tip by Pottle and a hit by Gundrum that rode along the top of the net before falling out of the reach of a Husky defender.
"Hamilton plays scrappy," Bourland said. "They are a really good 5A team, and we had to adjust early and responded with great teamwork and effort."
The Coyotes opened the fourth by capitalizing on Hamilton's mishits and miscommunication, including a set that fell between two hitters who were looked at each other rather than playing the ball. Centennial used the confusion to jump out to a 4-0 lead with Willneff serving.
Hamilton would pull to within 8-6 after a pair of kills by Ashli Bellinger. However, that's the closest the Huskies would get. The Coyotes, with Maloney serving, would go on an 8-0 run that would become a 10-1 run, effectively putting away last season's 5A-I 13-seed.
Willneff's senior leadership proved itself during the run as she took sets from Gundrum and notched three kills during the run and a key block that kept Maloney serving.
"I think Mack (Willneff) was getting a little frustrated early, but her hits started falling later," Bourland said. "(Pottle) also came up with some big kills late.
"I'm just really proud of how the girls came out tonight, especially after dropping the first game. They are going to face a tough region schedule, and some good teams early on - next we have Mountain Ridge and then Ironwood Ridge, both playoff teams last year and squads we lost to - so I'm greatful we came out with the victory tonight."
While it's a tough test to start the season, the Coyotes appear poised to accept the challenge. Bourland said the girls know they have a target on their back after finishing second in the 5A-II state tournament - falling to Ironwood - but they have accepted that role and are up for any battle.
"This is one of the most gelled group of girls I've had at Centennial," said Bourland, who has led the Coyotes for nine season. "They play with attitude, but there is no nitpicking. Instead, they pick one another up when there are mistakes."
Centennial will play host to Mountain Ridge at 6 p.m. Thursday.
In other action Tuesday:
Westwood defeated Deer Valley, 3-2 (19-25, 25-18, 25-10, 24-26, 8-15).
Ironwood downed Chavez, 3-0.
Liberty beat Williams, 3-1.
Corona del Sol swept Mountain Ridge, 3-0 (16-25, 24-26, 25-27).
Paradise Valley defeated Peoria, 3-0 (22-25, 23-25, 24-26).
Kellis swept Apollo, 3-0 (25-7, 25-16, 25-20).
Ironwood Ridge downed Sunrise Mountain, 3-2 (17-25, 8-25, 25-23, 27-25, 14-16).