Nothing comes easy for the volleyball team from Paonia High School.
The Eagles lost their senior co-captain to injury before the matches even started, but Paonia recovered and beat Meeker and Ridgway last Saturday afternoon to advance to the 2A state volleyball tournament for a fifth consecutive season.
McKenna Hartigan rolled her ankle in practice and could not play in the regional finals, hosted by the Eagles.
"We realized this week how important she is in terms of leadership on the floor," Paonia coach Krista Carsten said. "We struggled in game one with Meeker and then finally started playing."
In the first match of regionals, Paonia failed to find a rhythm on offense but held on to win the first game 25-23.
"We tried a few lineups during the week and that was pretty rough," Carsten said. "So I tried to keep things as normal as possible rotation-wise and ended up flipping our outside hitters."
Sophie Anderson moved to the middle and Brianna Van Vleet moved to the back row for regionals. Sophomore Poppy Lightfoot stepped in for the injured Hartigan.
"Poppy played the left side, and she's normally a right side hitter and a setter," Carsten said. "She did a great job. She played very consistent. A little nervous in the beginning but once she relaxed she played a great match. Both of them. She played really well, and I was proud of her."
Paonia won games two and three against Meeker 25-15 and 25-12.
McKenna Palmer led the way with 14 kills and five blocks in the match. Lightfoot recorded 13 digs, Emily Pieper set 34 assists and Anderson hammered 11 kills. It was the third weekend in a row that the Eagles swept the Cowboys 3-0.
The second match was much more difficult against Ridgway, a state qualifier. Paonia jumped out to a 2-0 lead with 25-15 and 25-11 wins but then saw its depth challenged in the third game.
Lightfoot collided with a teammate chasing a loose ball, bloodying her nose and forcing her removal from the rotation.
By the time she returned, Ridgway had opened up a 21-13 lead and went on to secure the third game 25-18.
Anderson's nice cross-court kill to open the fourth game served notice that the Eagles were not going to be deterred.
Paonia took the fourth game 25-20 and brought its record to 21-2 after the win.
The Eagles only losses this year were to 5A teams Grand Junction and Fruita Monument, both on the road.
Anderson capped her fine regional performance with a team-high 15 kills and seven blocks against Ridgway's Demons.
"Sophie has really come on in the past few weeks," Carsten said. "Basketball is her love but she's a heckuva volleyball player. She's a great athlete; she jumps really well. She's figuring volleyball out and if we can get her a ball above a blocker, she can put it down. I'm incredibly proud of her. She's just a fighter out there."
Palmer pounded 13 kills and had 18 digs against Ridgway while teammate Pieper chipped in with 11 kills and 39 assists.
The Eagles compiled their outstanding record despite significant stretches of the season without both senior co-captains, Pieper and Hartigan.
"That's the beauty of our team," Carsten said. "All of our kids can hit, they can all set, and they've all shouldered the responsibility of leading the team at times."
Paonia heads to the Denver Coliseum this weekend for the 2A state tournament, where they fell in the semifinals last year.
"The reality is we've got to win," Carsten said. "It doesn't matter who we're matched up against. We have to play volleyball and we have to come out with wins."
Carsten reported that Hartigan hopes to play through an "ugly sprain" and will be back in the rotation this weekend in Denver.
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