For a defending state champion, the Jesuit volleyball team felt a blatant sense of disregard coming into this season.
Mountainside seemed to be the Class 6A flavor of the month from August through early November.
Central Catholic captured the public's favor when head coach Rick Lorenz announced this season was his last hurrah.
The preseason hype around the Crusaders was rather muted. After losing the star-studded cast that lifted Jesuit to an undefeated campaign in 2018, this year was billed as a rebuild. Two losses to Mountainside, a tournament defeat to 4A champ Valley Catholic and another defeat to McMinnville fanned the flames.
But that supposed disrespect triggered a raging competitive inferno inside the minds and competitive souls of the incumbent Crusaders.
Doubters hovered above the squad like hungry buzzards, watching injuries decimate the lineup, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But returnees like Maddy Dowdall, who watched from the bench last year, wanted to prove they could steer the ship. Starters like Alison Buchholz, who were in the background of the state title, wanted their moment in the spotlight. They longed to verify this program was made for the long haul, not just a singular season, to prove they belonged at the top again.
Jesuit simply craved another state championship too bad not to be denied. Before a capacity state title match crowd and across the net from a spirited Central Catholic squad, the Crusaders came through clutch, beating the Rams 25-21, 24-26, 27-25, 23-25, 15-13 in the 6A title match on Nov. 9 at Liberty High School.
"We wanted to prove everyone wrong," Buchholz said. "That was our push forward. We made it here. Why not us? We were the underdogs and if we won it was going to be bigger and better. We proved that we still are Jesuit and can be the best of the best. That motivation was prominent. We had something to prove and we had nothing to lose. This was our time and that's how we played."
"Nobody expected this from us at all," Jesuit sophomore Tess Masingale said. "It was just hard work. Sometimes we didn't want to be at practice after a long day at school, but we still worked hard. We grinded during practice."
Once the match was complete, once the first place trophy was protected, once the first place medals were securely wrapped around their necks, the Crusaders were ready to pull receipts on all the so-called critics, the ones who chided the champs' talent level, who laughed at the lack of apparent big names on the roster, who said the preseason coaches' poll that picked Jesuit first was out of reverence, not real ability. Any haters who remained were silenced in gratifying fashion.
"Nobody thought we could pull this off," Dowdall said. "Everyone said we were going to have to restart, that we were too young, that there were going to be other teams that were bigger and stronger than us and more connected together. We came out here, did our job and proved we're good enough, that we're champions. We wanted to prove that we could do it and accomplish our goals."
The game's atmosphere was rowdy and charged an hour before the match even began. Each school brought busses of students who made their impactful presence felt with youthful exuberance and sheer, coordinated, unadulterated energy. Jesuit's side of supporters didn't have an empty seat. Central's side crammed in as many people as humanly possible. Alumni, parents, family members, you name it, were all locked-in attendees.
Buchholz said Jesuit was able to feed off of both student section's energies and rode the electricity that lit up Liberty. The roar from each side never waned. If Central scored a point, there was pure pandemonium. When Jesuit got a kill, its crowd went berserk. The match lasted two hours and 15 minutes. There were 34 ties and 19 lead changes. Neither team led by more than six all game. When Jesuit took the third set, Central walked the tight rope and somehow pulled off the fourth set 26-24. Afterward, its student section nearly blew the roof of Liberty. This, after Jesuit led 24-21 in the second set, only to have Central come storming back with five unanswered points to even it up. In a smaller high school gym, with a packed house on hand, one couldn't ask for a better setting, especially when the match wore onto a fifth set. Neither team blinked. The quality of play never dropped. The crowds were full throttle long into the night.
Even when Jesuit switched sides of the net for the fifth set and had both student sections screaming full throat at them, this young group stayed tight and locked into the play on the floor, not the stakes or bedlam beside them. Jesuit already had pulled the off the impossible in the 6A semis, forcing a fifth set against West Linn, falling behind 11-3 in the deciding game, only to mount an earth-shattering comeback to punch its ticket to the state title match.
"Our mental toughness really, really showed this game," Buchholz said. "We haven't been to really dig ourselves out of holes this season. But we don't fall apart anymore."
"We really started to believe in ourselves after West Linn," Dowdall said.
There was a calm about the Crusaders in between the fourth and fifth sets. The Masingale sisters cracked jokes to their teammates. Buchholz made sure Jesuit's knee white socks were all the way up. They were loose and cool in the pressure cooker.
"I think we were excited," Buchholz said. "We did this yesterday. We went to five with West Linn and were able to pull it out. Every point counted. We had to go for everything, and we did. We didn't get in our heads. We were able to shake things off."
"It was us being emotionally mature and not letting our mistakes hold us back," Tess Masingale said. "We moved onto the next point no matter what the last point was. As the game went on, we connected more and kept pushing through."
There were stars and standouts galore for the Crusaders. Ella Masingale had 17 kills and Tess added 16. Tess Masingale blocked six shots and seemed to come up with huge blocks on Central's Mia Jordan when it mattered the most. The Crusaders also got key contributions from juniors Amanda Henry (11 kills), Alison Buchholz (31 assists) and Peyton Griffin (29 assists) and sophomore Maisie Alexander (34 digs). Jesuit played with a shift worker's grit all match-long. In the first set, Hannah Nguyen dove into the Crusader bench to save a Central kill attempt, which led to a Dowdall spike. In the fourth, Buchholz sprinted out of bounds toward press row and nearly rammed into a cameraman to save a ball that eventually made its way to Henry along the left side of the court, who put away the set winner, 27-25. In the fourth, Nguyen sprinted across the half-court line and dove headfirst into the scorer's table for Ram kill. Surely, Central wanted this game, to send Lorentz out in style. But Jesuit dug deep.
"We had the want to win," Ella Masingale said. "We had that fire and fight in us. We didn't let a ball drop. We went for it as hard as we could."
Perhaps no star enjoyed the sweet success more than Dowdall. The junior sat on the bench for two years, stuck behind stars such as Rose Booth, Alyssa Hughes and Lauren McCabe, big-time college prospects who naturally soaked up playing time. But Dowdall never abandoned ship. She didn't transfer to a school that offered more minutes, more repetitions. The junior hung tough. She practiced against great players every day, kept her head down and patiently waited in the wings, knowing her time would come, if she could weather the playing time lull.
In the fifth set, Dowdall finally got hers, coming up with four kills and a block all the while being featured from Jesuit's revered left side hitting position. Two of those spikes distanced the Crusaders away from Central, first at 12-10, then 14-10. Then, Ella Masingale cuffed a right-handed kill, her hand still heavily wrapped from an earlier season injury, to end it. For Dowdall, the moment was a long time coming.
"Waiting was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," Dowdall said. "I've always been the tallest, then I get to high school and I'm one of the shortest. I'm the shortest hitter on the team. I'm not strong enough. My vert isn't good enough compared to (Booth, Hughes, McCabe). It was a hard breath to take in, but I learned a lot. I've been dreaming of this moment. I feel like I really proved myself today."
Dowdall finished the game with a team-high 19 kills. Twenty-four hours after an admittedly shaky performance against the Lions, the junior delivered and then some with her fifth set showing.
"I struggled yesterday because I was very nervous and wanted to make it here today," Dowdall said. "Today I needed to do it and my team needed me to do it. Knowing your teammates trust you and that you're going to put the ball down and having that belief in yourself…I'm glad I was able to fulfill those needs. I was able to have confidence in myself and everybody around me to pull through."
Next year, Jesuit won't be able to sneak up on anybody. The Crusaders lose Ella Masingale and Molly Piszczek but bring everybody else including Buchholz, Dowdall, Griffin and Henry who all now have two championship rings. This year was Jesuit's four state title in six years and sixth in school history, all under the guidance and watchful eye of head coach Teresa Zimmerlee.
Tess Masingale was named Most Valuable Player of the Match. Buchholz was named first-team all-tournament and Dowdall was second-team all-tourney as was Alexander.
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