Perry boys volleyball

Perry boys’ volleyball was pushed to a decisive fifth set, but the Pumas managed to come out on top to win their first-ever state championship.

East Valley schools had a dominant performance on Saturday in the boys’ volleyball state championships, where both top-ranked Casteel (5A) and Perry (6A) were able to cap off the season with rings. After more than two years of anticipating this opportunity since the end of the 2019 season, both programs made school history by bringing home the first ever trophy for the sport.

It wasn’t long ago that the future of high school sports in Arizona was still up in the air.

The winter sports season was postponed twice, cancelled and then given the green light with various restrictions. No fans aside from parents were allowed inside venues and masks had to be worn at all times.

Fast forward to May 15 and the gym inside of Skyline High School was near full capacity for the 5A volleyball championship between top-ranked Casteel and No. 2 Cienega. Students packed the stands, sporting smiles for all to see and created an electric atmosphere that made Saturday’s title game feel like a “normal” sporting event.

When play began, however, the buzz from fans of both schools quickly faded as Casteel went on to dominate Cienega to win the boys’ volleyball program’s first-ever state title, 3-0.

Casteel jumped out to an early 5-2 lead but Cienega hung around throughout most of the first set. A net violation followed by back-to-back kills by Casteel seniors Dallon Hunt and Kyler Evans gave the Colts a jolt of energy to cruise to a 25-15 victory in the first set of the match.

“(Evans) is just such a talented individual, such a great student-athlete,” Casteel coach Ryan Myen said. “I know when the ball is put his way, it’s going down almost every time… He’s just a leader, he’s a captain on this team, he has fire, emotion and he just does things the right way.”

Cienega started the second set a little stronger and went back-and-forth early on. However, consecutive aces from senior Noah Solomonson helped nudge Casteel ahead.

From there, the Colts were able to jump out to a 20-11 lead before Cienega finally found an answer. Despite a strong rally by the Bobcats, it wasn’t enough as Casteel took a 2-0 lead winning the second set 25-20.

One set away from the title, Casteel didn’t let the excitement of its lead distract its players from finishing strong. Cienega hustled on the court to did everything in its power to force a fourth set and stay alive in the match. At one point, a player chased the ball so far out of bounds he ran into railing on the bleachers in an attempt to keep it in play.

However, Casteel already controlled all the momentum in the match. After a couple of controversial calls, emotions began to boil over for Cienega as officials issued a red card to head coach Heather Mott. Casteel went on to finish the third set with a 25-14 win and a sweep of Cienega, which had only lost five sets all year.

“We just worked over and over and we studied a lot of film on Cienega. We had our goal all season and we weren’t letting anything derail us,” Myen said. “We knew Cienega was undefeated, they were only up here once against a tough Williams Field team that we knocked off, so we wanted to make sure we were ready for whatever they were throwing at us and I think we were more than ready tonight.”

As a member of the AIA Executive Board, Chandler Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Camille Casteel, alongside AIA Executive Director David Hines, presented the championship trophy to the school named in her honor. Students started making their way onto the court afterwards to celebrate with the team. A large circle was formed on the court to celebrate the team’s championship.

“With men’s volleyball, it’s never been super popular, so to know that we have that many people just rushing at us, just to feel the love, it’s amazing to know the school has your back and not just your team,” Evans said.

Myen said the championship was in honor of last year’s seniors who had their season cut short due to the pandemic.

“After being shut down last year, we had a ton of seniors who lost their season, we did everything for them,” Myen said. “The pink jerseys represented on the chairs tonight, those were all their jerseys and we wanted to make sure we honored them.

“Then to turn around and see our student sections… I was really impressed with our students.”

The 6A volleyball championship between top-ranked Perry and No. 2 Sandra Day O’Connor was the nightcap at Skyline. Once again, fans poured into the gym to take in the championship match.

The two had faced off earlier in the year, which Perry won with some ease, 3-1. However, the Pumas, who are the top-ranked team nationally, were forced to rally from a deficit to capture the program’s first-ever state title in the decisive fifth set over the Eagles.

“That was the first fifth set I think maybe everybody on the team has played, because last year we got it taken, we had a couple starters then,” Perry head coach Ryan Tolman said. “The year before that I don’t think that we did.”

Perry jumped out to an early lead in the first set before O’Connor rallied to narrowly beat the Pumas 25-22 to take a 1-0 lead in the match. Being down in a match was a rare occurrence for Perry, which had dominated all year long and into the playoffs.

However, the Pumas answered right back with a win of their own in the second set after going on a 10-5 run to take the lead and win.

“They’ve got a bunch of really good volleyball players on that side, so we knew it was going to be a dog fight all night,” Tolman said.

O’Connor was able to build momentum in the third set, jumping out to an 18-10 lead over Perry. The Pumas began to make a late push, but it proved to not be enough as they fell to a 2-1 deficit in the match.

Hoping to avoid defeat, Perry answered the call with a 25-17 victory over O’Connor to force the decisive fifth and final set of the match. Gehrig Tolman, a junior and the son of Perry’s head coach, came alive in the fourth set to help his team avoid elimination. He and senior Dalan Smith began to mesh on the offensive side of the net for Perry that eventually helped lead to the win.

“(Gehrig) told me first week of the season he was gonna do this for us... I can’t say enough about him tonight how good he was as a leader, you know he picked his spots, he helped his team out, he served great. You know, as a coach, I’m pretty proud, but as a dad I’m probably beaming,” Tolman said.

The fifth and final set of the match brought a new level of intensity in the gym. Both sides of the stands cheered wildly as the two teams went back-and-forth for the state title.

Perry found a rhythm and gained some breathing room with three straight points that forced O’Connor into a timeout to regroup. However, momentum had already shifted to Perry’s side.

Knowing they were only seven points away from a victory after playing from behind more than once on the night, the Pumas buckled down and stayed focused. They were able to maintain the lead, clawing their way to a 15-12 victory in the fifth set to win the match and state championship.

“It was kind of scary, I’m not going to lie,” Tolman said. “You know, when you really don’t ever get behind, I mean, we were tied five different times this year but never behind like that, I was super proud of how the guys just hung in there and fought.”

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