Photo | Tara Espinoza
On Nov. 19, the Golden Suns volleyball team advanced to the semifinal round of the 2021 GAC Volleyball Championships after sweeping (25-23, 25-20, 25-23) against Henderson.
“We played Henderson twice before, once at home, and we won, but when we went there, we lost. Our girls were out there looking for redemption this round. When we won, it gave them confidence and set the whole mood, and everything we worked for came to be,” Kera Dukic, head volleyball coach, said.
Senior outside hitter Tymber Riley, senior right-side hitter Haylee Paladini, senior middle blocker Emily Ragsdale, and freshman Abby Simpson were game leaders during the first match.
“When we won, it was so surreal and rewarding to see all of our hard work pay off. I think we are really going to surprise a lot of people in regions,” Paladini, from Fallon, Nevada, said.
On Nov. 20, the team faced Southwestern Oklahoma State in the second round of the tournament. The Golden Suns won 3-1 (25-19, 25-22, 20-25, 25-14). “This one was another team that we had lost to, and we went out with this mentality of wanting revenge; that was a game I will never forget. Paladini had 19 kills, and she was unreal. We could not be stopped,” Dukic said.
The team would advance to the finals to play against Oklahoma Baptist on Nov. 20, and that is where the Golden Suns would win the GAC Championship in a five-set match 3-2 (25-23, 15-25, 25-22, 19-25, 15-10). During this opening set, the Golden Suns took the lead 15-8, and the teams would trade points from there. The Golden Suns would finish the set with a 1-0 set lead.
In the second set, the Bison would close the lead on Golden Suns. In the third set, both teams would trade points, and with a kill from Paladini and Simpson, the Golden Suns went up to 2-1. Both teams were trading off points in the fourth set, but the Bison, capped off by two kills, took the lead and the set, sending the teams into a fifth and final set.
During the fifth set, the Bison took the lead 7-1.
“I will never forget looking up at the board and seeing 7-1 in the final set and thinking what do I do as a coach to get this team to work and win. So I did something I haven’t done all season. I sat down on my knees, and I just talked to them, and something clicked,” Dukic said.
After talking to the team and asking the team leaders what they thought the choice was made, the team would do the job.
“Simpson felt some pressure for sure; she is a freshman playing in a high-stakes game, and to watch her step up and own it was a fantastic moment,” Dukic said.
With Riley’s 14-3 run, Paladini, Bradley, and Simpson, the Golden Suns would defeat the two-time GAC champs 15-10.
“It was a very emotional and liberating experience, especially coming in as a freshman, and being a part of that was amazing,” Simpson said.
The team at the end of the match rushed the court and dog piled each other. “At that moment, it almost did not feel real, and I hope to build off this win and go to regionals to show off what ATU volleyball is capable of,” Madison Grantham said.
“If I could tell the team anything it would be that I am so unbelievably proud of them. I am proud of the young woman they are, and thankful I’m their coach, there is nothing in this world I would rather do,” Dukic said.
With winning the conference tournament championship, the team has punched its ticket to the DII NCAA Central Region Tournament.