Willa Laski

Wood River 5-10 sophomore middle blocker Willa Laski delivers a winner over the Minico blockers during Saturday’s preliminary tournament match in Hailey against the Spartans. Teammates Cambria Morris and Samantha Chambers support Laski, at left. The Wolverines beat Minico in four sets and slipped past Burley in five for a state tournament berth.

     When the two-hour volleyball drama was all over and Wood River senior Emily Vandenberg had pounded her match-winning 21st kill on yet another assist by freshman Samantha Chambers, Vandenberg just sat down.

     It was the perfect serve by Chambers, in a perfect situation, ended by a perfect finish.

     “There was no way I was going to miss that,” said 5-10 outside hitter Vandenberg about the thunderous blast. “I wanted it badly.”

     Exhausted and unable to move another inch, let alone jump in the air for sheer joy, Vandenberg was alone on the Hailey floor in her final home match for only a split second.

     Chambers knelt down next to her. Senior Sariah Nilsen took a knee nearby. Sophomore Willa Laski sat as well.

     They shared looks of disbelief, happiness and wonder at the completion of a marvelous comeback. In the stands, the home crowd roared approval.

     Fueled by defense, Wood River (22-12) came from way behind and defeated Burley in the final three sets after being dominated by the Bobcats and their superlative 6-2 outside hitter Makayla Tolman in the first two-set losses.

     No. 2-seeded Wood River downed No. 3 Burley 17-25, 19-25, 25-21, 25-19 and 15-10.

     Combined with their four-set victory over No. 7 Minico earlier Saturday, the Wolverines advanced to play No. 1 Century in the championship match of the Great Basin Conference tournament Thursday.

     That match will be played for state seeding Thursday in Pocatello, but reigning State 4A tournament champion Century (a 3-1 winner over Pocatello Saturday) and Wood River have already secured their spots in the state meet.

     After the state-clinching game winner on a snowy Saturday in Hailey, the Wood River bench happily streamed out to dog-pile Vandenberg.

     They celebrated as a team the come-from-behind victory that booked a Wood River ticket to the State 4A tournament for the first time since 2012.

     Did Nilsen have any doubt about what she could accomplish when she stepped to the service line, given the serve and a 10-9 lead in the fifth and final set by a Vandenberg kill?

     “No doubts. You can’t have any doubts at that point,” she said. Nilsen with her trusty jump-serve drilled two consecutive ace serves for a 12-9 lead.

     Burley called time out, and Nilsen clutched the game ball during the huddle. Then, she served another winner, followed by a tricky Chambers tip for the penultimate point, and finally Vanderberg’s kill.

     Leading their teams were the two senior titans, College of Idaho-bound Vandenberg (21 kills, 42 in 2 matches) and Brigham Young University commit Tolman of Burley (29 kills, 11 blocks), the left-handed opposite with a nine-foot, three-inch blocking jump.

     Wood River found a way to deal with Tolman in the final three sets. The Wolverines did it with an undersized, scrappy, never-say-die defense that resembled the kind St. Maries used in winning 10 straight state titles from 1984-93.

     First-year Wood River coach Kristyn Rutland said, “We were taken home by the strength of our seniors and the standout server for the match, Sariah Nilsen (6 aces in the match, 3 late in the final set).         “We are able to stay composed after being down and just stay in it and work ourselves back into the match after being dominated by Burley’s big player.

     “It took the whole team to do it. I couldn’t have scripted it better—ending on a kill from another standout senior, Emily Vandenberg.

     “Our defense brought us back. Our seniors came together and brought the energy. They just didn’t want to lose.”

     Burley coach Stephanie Shirley and her staff were wearing “Believe State 2018” sweatshirts from their state tournament appearance last year, and Burley was the state third-place finisher in 2017.

     Wood River had an ace in the hole, too, being forced in its locker room—for inspiration—to stare at the final bracket from the 2015 middle school volleyball meet won by Burley over many of the same Hailey players, now seniors.

     Yet Wood River showed some nerves and had a shaky serving and serve-receive start in its 25-17 first-game loss. Tolman heated up with eight kills and three blocks in the 25-19 second-game victory that ended again on the serve of Bobcat junior Kelsie Pope.

     The seesaw third set was tied 12 times before sophomore Willa Laski made a big block for a 20-19 lead.

     Precocious freshman Chambers and senior Lauren Thomsen teamed for a block and 22-19 Hailey edge after a couple of amazing digs by Cambria Morris. And Chambers ended the 25-21 win with two aces.

     Four straight serving winners by Nilsen gave Wood River a head of steam in the fourth set, and Burley’s attacks started to soar long or into the net when faced with the relentless Hailey defense.

     Laski (3 kills) served seven winners in the 25-19 Hailey fourth-set win, including two aces sandwiched around a Thomsen kill for a 20-13 lead.

     The fifth set was anybody’s to win, until Nilsen stepped to the line and worked magic.

     Rutland said, “What a great crowd! So proud of all of these young women.”

     Burley tried to stay alive hosting No. 4 Preston Tuesday, while No. 6 Twin Falls traveled to No. 5 Pocatello. The State 4A tournament is Nov. 1-2 in northern Idaho.


District volleyball stats


WRHS 17-25, 19-25, 25-21, 25-19, 15-10 over Burley

     WR serving winners: Willa Laski 12 with 3 aces; Sariah Nilsen 11 with 6 aces; Cambria Morris 8 with 2 aces; Josie Conely 7; Samantha Chambers 5 with 2 aces; Emily Vandenberg 2.

     WR kills (47): Emily Vandenberg 21 (5-6-3-4-3 per set); Sariah Nilsen 8; Willa Laski 7; Lauren Thomsen 5; Katelyn Spence 3; Samantha Chambers 3.

     WR assists: Samantha Chambers 32.

     WR blocks (15): Willa Laski 6; Lauren Thomsen 4; Samantha Chambers 3; Emily Vandenberg 1; Katelyn Spence 1.

     WR digs: Sariah Nilsen 10; Emily Vandenberg 8.

     Burley serving winners: Kelsie Pope 14 with 2 aces; Allison Hege 10 with 1 ace; Makayla Tolman 7; Mikayla Shirley 6.

     Burley kills: Makayla Tolman 29 (3-8-12-3-3 per set); Carrie Baker 5; Kaia King 4.

     Burley blocks: Makayla Tolman 11; Natalie Hepworth 6.


WRHS 25-14, 25-15, 23-25, 25-19 over Minico

     WR serving winners: Emily Vandenberg 15 with 1 ace; Cambria Morris 11; Sariah Nilsen 10 with 3 aces; Samantha Chambers 7 with 4 aces; Josie Conely 4.

     WR kills (51): Emily Vandenberg 21 (4-5-5-7 per set); Samantha Chambers 8; Sariah Nilsen 6; Lauren Thomsen 5; Willa Laski 5; Josie Saleen 2; Sophia Vandenberg 1; Katelyn Spence 1; Paige Madsen 1; Jade Ellison 1.

     WR assists: Samantha Chambers 30.

     WR blocks (16): Willa Laski 4, Lauren Thomsen 3; Josie Saleen 2; Emily Vandenberg 2; Natalee Morse 2; Sariah Nilsen 1; Katelyn Spence 1; Samantha Chambers 1.

     WR digs: Emily Vandenberg 11.

     Minico serving winners: Bailey Seamons 9 with 4 aces; Amber Wickel 4 with 1 ace; Megan Sanderson 4; Shari Tanner 3 with 2 aces; Talin Stimpson 3.

     Minico kills (29): Emilyn Swenson 7; Allyson Vorwaller 7; Amber Wickel 4; Talin Stimpson 4.

     Minico blocks: Allyson Vorwaller 2; Talin Stimpson 2.

Email the writer: sports@mtexpress.com

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