If Niki Small's Ashland teammates wanted to prove they were every bit as state tournament-worthy as their superstar middle, there had to be a safer and less stress-inducing way to go about showing it.
But up two games to one with a chance to clinch a tourney berth in the fourth, the Grizzlies down 21-13 in the frame and Small rotated to the bench, they had Mountain View right where they wanted them. Apparently.
The third-ranked Grizzlies staged an improbable comeback with their center of attention cheering on the sideline, stealing eight straight points to tie and then four of the next five to avoid a fifth frame and eliminate the road team.
Ashland (15-6) dropped the opening game to the sixth-ranked Cougars, 25-23, but took the next three, 25-17, 25-15, 25-22, and will face St. Helens to kick off the eight-team Class 5A tourney at Liberty High School in Hillsboro on Friday.
"That was really amazing," junior middle Samantha Boehnke said. "We have to attribute that to the seniors. They knew this could have been it for them, and they didn't want it to go to that fifth game so they pulled it out for us."
With an eight-point advantage in the deciding game, Mountain View aided the Grizzlies with five consecutive attack errors. Just as soon as the collars tightened on the Cougars, Ashland began to smell blood, and Boehnke and hitter Hayley Ross kept the run alive with back-to-back kills.
Another Cougar miscue tied it at 21-21, and another Ross kill gave Ashland their first lead since 2-1. As AHS clung to a 24-22 edge, the teams rallied before Boehnke redirected a Mountain View attack back over the net with a game-clinching block.
"It got pretty loud in here when we won it," Boehnke modestly assessed. "We couldn't have asked for a better finish to give us some confidence going into next week."
Niki who? OK, well, not exactly.
Small still led Ashland with 15 kills and three blocks, but thanks to a masterful performance by setter Callie McCoy the Grizzlies were far from one-dimensional. The senior had a season-high 51-assist output that helped Boehnke post 14 kills, and Ross another 12.
"It just came down to the fact that we wanted to finish them when we had the chance," McCoy said. "Our girls did a great job of capitalizing on opportunities all night, and that's what we'll have to do to be successful at state."
Boehnke also chipped in three blocks, and sophomore libero Piper Cantrell continued her consistent play with 25 digs.
Ashland coach Jodee Scott noted that Mountain View emphasized putting a second blocker on Small all night after the senior torched the Cougars in an Ashland win between the squad a few weeks ago.
"We were running (Small) almost every time up against them the first time, so they were definitely ready for that," Scott said. "But (McCoy) did an awesome job of spreading the ball out, and we came through when we needed to."
Mountain View (14-8) was sharp for much of the first game, but even though the scoreboard read 25-23 in their favor at the end, the damage had already been done. Leading 17-11 with a chance to seize the momentum, they allowed Ashland to get within one point at 23-22 and welcomed the crowd into the game before winning.
Consequently, the Grizzlies went into the next game with a newfound sense of confidence and raced out to a 12-6 lead, never looking back. Ashland went on to run away with the third game, too, seizing the advantage and taking off some pressure.
"Obviously, volleyball is a game of momentum," Scott said. "It'd be nice if we could limit the other team's momentum a little more, but we'll take it. That was what's it all about."