The Thunderbirds reach the final six at the Northwest volleyball championships

by: ESTACADA NEWS: DAVID BALL - Estacada graduate Haley Lusher, a libero at Highline CC, gets in position for a dig during the teams first-round win over Yakima Valley.GRESHAM — Estacada graduate Haley Lusher found herself in the biggest match of her volleyball career when the Highline CC rookie helped the Thunderbirds to a five-set win over Bellevue in the second round of the Northwest championships Friday.

Highline was in must-win mode after dropping two of the first three sets to the Bulldogs. The Thunderbirds answered the call with Danielle Tabor hammering a big swing through the middle, and Megan Smith clipping the net for an ace that put the team up 10-7 early in the fourth set.

The knockout punch was moments away.

Ashley Barnum stepped to the service line and put the set out of reach with an 11-point spurt that saw teammates Tabor and Miranda Grieser take turns converting kills out of the front row. Highline found itself up 23-8 before Bellevue could force a side out.

“The adrenaline was high and everyone was looking to make a play — we were going after every ball,” Barnum said. “It was obvious we were going to win that game, so we started getting ready for the fifth set.”

The Thunderbirds would never trail in the finale, claiming the first point when Mackenzie Mowry clipped the tape with a kill attempt and watched the ball trickle over on the other side. A block by Chloe Mensching and a kill down the line by Mikaela Ballou extended the lead to 10-4, and a series of Bellevue hitting errors closed out the match.

Ballou led the Thunderbirds 21 kills, while Tabor added 18.

Highline totaled 12 blocks, stopping numerous Bellevue attacks at the net.

“Our block really held up and that allowed us to end points right away,” Highline coach Chris Littleman said. “We felt like we had the stronger hitters, we just had to defend long enough to get the ball to them.”

Lusher finished with a tournament-best 18 digs from her libero spot and assisted on three kills. She also served a five-point run that put Highline in charge of the second set.

• Highline fell out of the winner’s bracket with a four-set loss to defending champion Blue Mountain on Friday night.

The Thunderbirds took the first set by three points before being outscored 75-48 the rest of the way. Lusher had 15 digs in the loss.

• Highline’s ended its stay Saturday with a wild 25-14, 21-25, 16-14 loss to Linn-Benton in the elimination bracket.

The Roadrunners made quick work of the first set and appeared on their way to a sweep when Samantha Kelsey hit four aces to push them in front 7-0 to start the second game.

Highline regrouped with a timeout and battled its way to a 16-14 lead on a Mensching block. The score would be tied four times in the late stages before a hustle play pushed Highline over the top. Barnum made a pair of diving digs in the back row, setting the stage for setter Grieser to score with a dump shot for a 20-19 lead.

The Thunderbirds would go on to claim the set on a Ballou blast through the middle.

Highline was well on its way to surviving with an 8-4 lead at the third-set switchover. Linn-Benton closed the gap down the stretch, but Tabor sent a kill off a Roadrunner block to give Highline a pair of match points.

The Thunderbirds were unable to finish.

Linn-Benton reeled off four straight points, winning the match when a Highline attack went wide.

Lusher saw limited action in this one and finished with four digs.

• Highline opened the playoffs with a four-set win over Yakima Valley on Thursday, powering through the first set with a .609 kill rate. The Thunderbirds rushed to a 22-9 lead when Tabor connected on a sharp-angled kill across the front row and followed with a shot down the middle.

The Thunderbirds overcame a six-point lead early in the second set, pulling even on an ace by Ballou that deflected off the arms of the Yakima libero and crashed into the back wall. Tabor came alive at the net, and Highline closed out the set 25-20.

After dropping the third set, Highline took quick command in the fourth.

Ballou and Grieser connected on a give-and-go across the front row for a 5-2 lead, and the Thunderbirds were flying. Ballou split a pair of Yaks in the back row for a kill and a 21-15 lead, and she converted match point with an ace.

“It was important for us to keep the ball in play and have a chance to score,” Lusher said. “It feels good to get this first one and be on our way in that top bracket.”

Lusher picked up 13 digs and connected on a service ace to put Highline in front early in the second set.

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