Mavericks build a two-set lead, only to see it disappear at the hands of the Cougars

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - The Mountainside volleyball team was upended by Canby in the Class 6A quarterfinals.

When you get to the state tournament, the team that makes the fewest mistakes will always be the one that wins.

No matter how much momentum is on your side, no matter how great a team is playing, every hit, every set, every serve, every moment is so important. Give a team an opening and it invites the ghosts of playoff past back into the picture.

Sports are cruel that way. Sometimes the best team doesn't always win.

The Mountainside volleyball team destroyed Canby in the first two sets of the Class 6A quarterfinals. The Mavericks built a 17-0 lead in the second set en route to a 25-11 thrashing. How a team could ever come back from that kind of massacre and not just win the next set, but the following one and the deciding fifth might say more about Canby's mettle than it does anything to discredit the young Mavericks.

Miracle comebacks can happen. Canby, behind the sensational play of Daley Mcclellan, overcame the two-set deficit and won the quarterfinal match 21-25, 11-25, 25-16, 25-18, 15-12 at Liberty High School on Nov. 8.

"It came down to if you were playing to win or playing not to lose," Mountainside senior Maya Ngai said. "We kept fighting, but it was who wanted it more, who fought harder until the end. We were trying to minimize the errors on our side and get back the control. We had to reset, keep our heads up."

It was a resurgence you had to see in person to believe. To the Mavericks and their huge fan base on hand, it was all too real, all too unbelievable, like watching an avalanche hurtle down a mountain right at you with nowhere to run and hide.

To be so completely in control of a match, dominating every aspect of the game only to all that goodness disappear, stung in ways few know. Mountainside justifiably had state championship aspirations and the resume to back up that dream. The Mavericks beat eventual state champ Jesuit not once but twice. They took down Summit and Sunset, both of whom made the elite eight. Mountainside swept Sheldon, another elite eight team, too. Then they took down the Storm and the Apollos in the consolation bracket for good measure to finish fourth overall at the 6A state tourney. The Mavericks went from the second round a year ago to fourth place at state, which is a huge leap for a team that just started playing varsity ball last fall. This was the next step in their development, but what a painful one it was to take.

Any viewer with two working eyeballs could see Mountainside's potential in the second set against Canby. Ngai went on a float serving spree she'll never forget. The senior southpaw powered home six aces and stayed on the backline as Mountainside went on an insanely good 17-0 run. Senior captain Izzi Szulczewski killed every set she could receive. Kristi Mazzotta blocked shots at the net. Mackenzie Leith got going hitting the ball on the left side. Mountainside's passionate emotion powered a playing apex on the state's biggest stage, before a crowd that was frankly awed while Canby was mortified.

"We fed off the crowd's energy and each other on the court, just hyping each other up," Ngai said. "To keep going, especially at this level, is really hard. Our front row and our defense definitely contributed to keeping me back there."

Credit Canby and Mcclellan in particular. A haymaker to the jaw such as the one Mountainside landed would send most teams into a tailspin. But the Cougars scratched, clawed and fought like mad, especially on defense, to stay afloat. Their passing improved tenfold. Suddenly, Mcclellan was getting great swings on the ball time after time. It didn't matter where Mountainside set up its block. It didn't matter where Mcclellan was hitting from: right side, left side, middle, back row. Everything shot she hit turned to gold. The runs she went on were a master class in stamina, energy and power. No player should be able to carry a team the way she did for three sets but Mcclellan seemed to grow stronger with every set. Her teammates put their passes on point and the future University of Oregon inflicted the damage, chipping away at Mountainside's lead one spike at a time. It was a one-player show in that sense, one that rendered the Mavericks powerless. Mountainside led by two points twice in the fifth set. A Szulczewski ace made it 7-5. A Mazzotta kill gave Mountainside an 8-6 lead. The energy in the gym swelled. The Mav fans could sense this match, after all the setbacks, was there for the taking. But then Mountainside committed three straight errors and Canby reclaimed a 12-10 edge. And Mcclellan, true to form, finished the match, reeling off three straight points to send the Cougar fans into delirium and the Mavericks into remorse.

"It all comes down to the little things," Ngai said. "Canby was a good team with some good swings. They did a really good job of controlling their side of the net."

Still, the Mavericks ended their season with a runner up finish in the Metro League, a fourth-place trophy to add to their trophy case and the OSAA sportsmanship trophy. Szulczewski was a unanimous first-team all-tournament selection. She'll play at the University of Portland next season. Szulczewski, Mazzotta, Megan Cassidy, Milan Mafinejad and Katelyn Redell will all graduate from a squad that went 24-7 overall and 10-2 in Metro.

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