TUMWATER — Naselle shocked District favorite Firm Foundation in semifinals, clinching a spot at State with a 28-26, 25-19, 25-21 victory Thursday, Nov. 7. Three Rivers Christian went on to beat Naselle in five sets in the nightcap for the District title.

Going into the semifinal, Firm Foundation had a four-match winning streak against Naselle, including last year’s District championship game. Led by league MVP Katie Kogler, the Eagles came in with a 17-match winning streak since their season-opening loss to 1A power King’s Way.

But the Comets, who were 8-6 in the regular season, showed a new dimension, playing a vertical, above-the-net game much more than they did most of the year.

Jackie Steenerson was scorching hot, living above the net and slamming undiggable shots straight down to the floor.

“We had Jackie in the front when (Kogler) was in the back,” setter Peyton Dalton said. That way, she didn’t have to worry about hitting away from Kogler’s blocks. “She could just whack it. Then when (Kogler) was in the front, we had Hollie Haataia blocking her.”

Dalton did not play her first full game until the final week of the regular season, while Steenerson missed almost half the year. The young Comet team showed glimpses of their potential at times in the regular season, including a victory over a strong Ocosta team. With Dalton making all her hitters better, the Comets now look like the team they envisioned coming into the year.

“We’ve been through so many challenges this year, and we came back and persevered through everything,” Haataia said.

First set

The play was intense from the beginning, when Naselle grabbed the quick lead. Kogler (13 kills, 39 attempts) won the match’s opening point for Firm Foundation with a hard shot down the sideline, but then missed out of bounds on the next point. Kaylin Shrives found a gap for a kill, and Haataia followed with a spike of a dig that came right back to her. Steenerson had a kill with a shot that glanced off the net, then slammed one to mid-court for an early 8-3 lead.

With the Comets clinging to a 15-14 lead, Steenerson got a line drive around the pole and into a gap for the kill. Kogler returned a big hit by Steenerson, but Steenerson stayed on offense to win the point with a powerful block, making it 17-15.

Kogler slammed back a Haataia block to tie it at 20, then blasted a shot through the front row for a 21-20 lead. After net violations by Naselle on back-to-back plays, Firm Foundation was on a 6-0 run and had game-point at 24-20.

Haataia led Naselle’s comeback with a fade-away shot around the pole for a kill, an extremely hard hit through a defender’s hands, and a block of Kogler for a 25-24 lead for game point Naselle.

Kogler tied it at 25, tipping it over the Comet front row and in front of a desperate dive by Kylee Tarabochia. At 26-26, Steenerson hit a shot that was tipped by a defender on its way out, giving the serve to Brynn Tarabochia for yet another game point. Tarabochia nailed an ace low off the fists of Lizzy Willett for the Comet win.

“After the first set, I had a good feeling about it,” Steenerson said. “We were playing so much better than we’ve played against them before.”

Second set

The Comets got out to an early lead in the second set, making big defensive plays against Kogler’s attacks. Dalton read a Kogler tip and closed the mid-court gap, leading to a Comet point and a 5-3 second-set lead. Libero Brynn Tarabochia made two great digs on one play, making a diving stop and turning around a very hard hit, leading to an eventual Steenerson kill down the sideline for the 7-3 lead.

Echo Cenci followed with a leaping power shot for a kill. Steenerson then smashed one straight down to make it 9-3. Cenci forced a diving miss, then angled a shot off the back of the front-row defender’s fists. Brynn Taracochia kept another tough play alive, getting off a pass to Dalton while colliding with a teammate on the sideline; Dalton’s desperate bump-over led to the Comet point and a 14-6 lead. Cenci again won at the net with a shot through the front row. Shrives reached way over for a spike to go up 16-7.

Cenci’s big performance off the bench helped keep the Comets on their way to the upset. All year the ultra-athletic 5’4” sophomore has provided brilliant defense at outside hitter, with quick reactions allowing her to dive back on the ball. On offense, her leaping ability allows her to make up for her lack of height, but the timing of the play has to be just right. Against Firm Foundation, Dalton seemed to connect with her perfectly.

“That’s what she does when she believes in herself,” Dalton said. “She’s an amazing athlete, and I knew what she was capable of; that’s her normal hitting at practice.”

Kogler led a Firm Foundation rally, combining power and finesse, sometimes on the same point, to cut the lead to 19-17. Steenerson answered with another straight-down kill. Cenci found yet another between-rows gap. Haataia had a fade-away kill between rows to make it 23-18. Shrives closed out the 25-19 win with a pair of kills across the front row.

Third set

After two near-perfect sets, the Comets were a bit off to start the third, falling behind before coming back to make 9-5. Steenerson slammed one down to start a 5-0 run that put Naselle up 10-9. Steenerson got huge power on a fade-away kill to go up 16-15.

Shrives then had a strong stretch of play for Naselle. She tapped back an Abby Helmes shot for a kill, then blocked a Kogler shot for another. Kogler answered with a sideways block of Shrives for a kill of her own. But then a Shrives block jammed Kogler at the net for a 19-17 lead.

With Naselle closing in on victory up 22-18, the Comets faced a tough point. Dalton scrambled to push a shot over; Cenci finished off the point with another cleverly-placed shot, forcing Kogler to dive in the back row and make an awkward pass, leading to the Comet point.

Firm Foundation cut it to 24-21 with a big block of a Steenerson shot. But Steenerson slammed one over on the next point to clinch the match, putting the State tournament and, more immediately, the District finals.

District finals against Three Rivers

In finals the Comets faced Three Rivers Christian, which like Firm Foundation had beaten them twice in the regular season. Three Rivers won 25-14, 22-25, 25-15, 20-25, 15-11.

Coming off the high of the Firm Foundation game that ended a half hour before, the Comets struggled out of the gate, missing with passes and falling behind 5-1 early. Three Rivers, who had beaten Coastal League champion Lake Quinault in their early game, built a big lead with some well-placed shots and took the first set 25-14.

The second set was close throughout. Hollie Haataia had a sideline kill, then smashed a shot through a double-block for an 18-14 lead. Naselle eventually won 25-22, tying the match.

In the third, Three Rivers got another lopsided win of 25-15 to go up two sets to one.

Steenerson’s placement helped Naselle win some tough points in the fourth set, as they took a 20-13 lead. Three Rivers cut into the lead, but Haataia’s emphatic kill finished off the 25-20 win, forcing a fifth set.

Three Rivers went up 6-0. Since fifth sets are only played to 15 points, Naselle needed to come back in a hurry. Haataia got going again, hammering the defense as Naselle cut the lead. Steenerson then tapped a shot to an opening in the middle for a kill, and followed with a cross-court kill to tie it at seven.

After Three Rivers went back ahead 12-7, Steenerson zipped a shot down the sideline for a kill, followed with an overpowering shot straight to the floor, and won the next point at the net, cutting the lead to two. With Naselle down 14-10, Steenerson powered one through a defender’s hands to cut it to three again. On the next play, Steenerson missed with a pass into the net, Peyton Dalton couldn’t quite dig it out, and Three Rivers Christian clinched the match and the District title.

Naselle and Three Rivers qualified for State as the top two teams in the District. In the third-place game, Firm Foundation crushed Lake Quinault. They went on to qualify for State with a victory at Sunnyside Christian. Lake Quinault lost a similar play-in game for State Saturday.

The State tournament will be in Yakima on Thursday and Friday Nov. 14-15. The Comets will open against Pomeroy (22-4) at 9:45 a.m. on Thursday.

Aaron Mead is a sports writer for the Chinook Observer. Contact him at 360-642-8181 or aaroncmead@gmail.com.

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