By Eric Butler
When she put down her final kill of the match, Mayfield junior Jessica Groen was a picture of hyperventilating excitement. Falling to the floor a few feet away from her celebrating teammates, Groen looked like she could scarcely believe what had just happened.
Neither could the Rio Rancho Rams.
Mayfield ended the Rams' three-year reign over Class 5A on Saturday by upsetting Rio Rancho 21-25, 26-24, 25-21, 14-25, 15-13 at the University of New Mexico’s Johnson Center in Albuquerque.
Groen was a major reason why the Trojans, only the seventh seed in the 5A state tournament, were able to go on a postseason roll that ended with a championship.
The 6-foot-2 middle blocker buried 21 kills against the Rams and, at times, was the only effective scoring option for Mayfield. That was particularly true in the first and fourth games.
In the fourth, for instance, when the Trojans fell behind 14-6, Groen had accounted for all six of her team's points.
Mayfield was much more effective when teammates Jenna Franzoy, Mariah Lawson and Katie Diaz were scoring winners at the net.
Groen, in fact, was on the bench as part of the regular Trojans rotation when the Trojans came back from a three-point deficit in the deciding fifth game.
Rio Rancho, led by Darian Mullen's 20 kills, eventually pulled ahead 10-7 in the fifth before Trojans' setter Kristen Romney craftily dumped a ball over the net for a point to give Mayfield the serve.
Then Diaz served four straight times for Trojans points as her team went up 12-10.
"I just knew that we had to serve tough. If we served tough, we could keep them out of their game," Diaz said.
When Groen finally reentered the game, Mayfield was up 13-11. The ever-resilient Rams, survivors of two match points against Eldorado in the quarterfinals, scored two to tie at 13-13 when Groen came up with a kill.
On the only match point of the night, a serve from the Trojans' Franzoy was dug by Rio Rancho too long – straight over the net to Groen, who slammed down the winner.
"I'm so excited, this is so such a dream," Groen said. "This was our year. We've said that from the minute we got to state."
Rio Rancho has been in the big schools finals for the last eight years. In the last five, only Mayfield has kept the Rams from grabbing the state title trophy. Mayfield also beat Rio Rancho in the 2004 5A championship.
"They (the Trojans) continued to get better and better and better," said Rio Rancho coach Toby Manzanares, who team swept Mayfield on Oct. 11. "It showed tonight. They don't give out trophies in October, they give them away in November and this is when they were ready."
Mayfield entered the state tourney on a down note, having lost in its district tournament to Alamogordo. The Trojans avenged that defeat by knocking off the Tigers in a five-game quarterfinal.
"Yeah, it's pretty weird coming out of our district in fourth place and winning the state championship," Mayfield coach Mike Sautter said.
The Class 3A and 4A finals were sweeps in favor of the top-seeded teams.
In their last volleyball match, seniors Brandi and Kristin Valencia led Moriarty to the Class 4A championship for a second straight year. The twins were integral parts of a front line that limited St. Pius to 20 total kills in a 25-19, 25-18, 25-15 sweep.
"What an incredible team. They are truly a great team," said St. Pius coach Ryan Sakamoto of the victorious Pintos. "They shut down our middle block, they shut down Ashley. Our balls just didn't hit the floor."
The only tight game in the match was the first. Holding a 21-19 advantage, Brandi and then Kristin Valencia hit kill-shots for a four-point lead. Brandi Valencia then stuffed a spike by St. Pius Samantha Brown and the Pintos won the game on the next point due to a Sartans' error.
The Valencias will concentrate on basketball now – first for Moriarty in the upcoming prep season and then at Metro State in Denver on the collegiate level.
After the match, Moriarty coach Kim Bell pointed to the twins and fellow senior Jordan Russell, the team's setter, as the foundation for the back-to-back championships.
"They were definitely the backbone of our success," Bell said. "They deserved this. What a moment for them to truly go out on top. I owe them so much and I told all three of them after the match how much I loved them."
For Bell, it was a season of personal triumph. Diagnosed with breast cancer last spring, she went through treatments over the summer and lost her hair before the high school season began.
With her hair now growing back, the Moriarty coach had put the illness almost behind her on Saturday. Almost.
"There was a lot more to it than just the winning," said Bell, choking back tears after the match.
In Class 3A, Ruidoso (21-3) started fast and rolled to a 25-10, 25-16, 25-23 victory over Robertson to win the school's third volleyball championship.
The Warriors got 17 kills from senior Haley Williams and 13 more from fellow senior Amber Gardner to plow past the Cardinals.
It was Ruidoso's first title since 2004 and Brown's first as a coach there.
"We were able to keep them on their heels and keep them out of system to where their only real option was outside - and we loaded up the block there," said Brown on the keys to his team's quick spurt at the beginning. "It feels fantastic. I'm so proud of the girls. You look at them and their growth. I mean, several of them were starting as freshmen four years ago."
Robertson (16-10) entered the state tourney as only the seventh seed. Behind senior hitters Julie Franken and Marin Schweigert, among others, the Cardinals knocked off higher-seeded teams like St. Michael's and Pojoaque to get to the championship game for a second year in a row.
"We had a lot of emotionally and physically exhausting ballgames to get here," Robertson coach Raynee Trujillo said. "And I'm not ashamed to lose to a quality program like Ruidoso, because they do a great job and are very consistent.
"They (the Warriors) may have affected some of the things that we did," she added.
In the only close game, the third, Williams broke a 22-22 tie with a kill from the left side. After the teams exchanged the next two points, Williams slammed home another to end the match.
"It just hit me – I was just shocked," said Williams on the moment of winning the championship. "I did not want to go four games. We had beat them in three (earlier in the season), but neither team played very good. We knew this was going to be a whole other ballgame."
"It was amazing to know we worked so hard this year and we did it," Gardner said.
Texico in Class 2A now has the longest championship streak going. The Wolverines were on the brink of losing the finale in the third game, trailing 22-20, before rallying to win that game.
Eventually, led by juniors Kaitlin Luscombe and Victoria Richards, Texico outlasted Navajo Prep 24-26, 22-25, 25-23, 25-15, 15-6 to capture its third straight title.
It was a rematch of the 2007 championship match and the Eagles, led by the hitting of Nicole Crisp, Nicole Rogers and Alexis Archambault, almost got revenge after a four-game title loss a year ago.
"There's no quit in this team, let me tell you," said Texico senior Jaryse Harris, a key hitting component on all three of the Wolverines' most recent championship teams. There's nothing that gets us down."
Animas, with hitters like senior Jaci Hatch and sophomore Merrilee Richardson, was seeking repeat title in Class 1A but a traditionally powerful foe in the small schools was determined to prevent that from happening.
Fort Sumner rolled to a 25-17, 25-19, 25-17 sweep over the Panthers as the Vixens were led by seniors Rachael Chavez, Bree'Anna Lucero and Rita Herrera – all who were sophomore starters on a Fort Sumner team that won back in 2006.
In 2007, Fort Sumner was upended by Elida and never got a chance at Animas.
"We came back with a mission," Chavez said. "Last year, we like fizzled out. We were up two games and then we just went down. This game we were prepared – we were not going to go down."