Still stinging from a sweep at Centennial less than three weeks ago, Liberty battled back from a six-point first game deficit against the Coyotes at home Tuesday.
But once the visitors held off the Lions for a 25-22 win, they relaxed and reminded the crowd why they are ranked No. 1 in the 5A Conference.
Centennial (20-7, 14-0 regular season) dominated the next two games to complete a second sweep against its district and Northwest Region rival, winning 25-22, 25-13, 25-14.
"It feels really good because we had a target on our backs since we beat them at our home. Even though it was really close (in game one) we pushed through to win," sophomore outside hitter Sommer Kasney said.
As the match wore on, thew Coyotes' defense grew increasingly stifling. Senior libero Reagan Leonard, senior defensive specialist Taytum Yinger, senior setter Dani Wiley and Kansey kept up the communication in the back and let few balls drop.
The presence of senior middle blocker Kara Spicer plus sophomore Taleah Cooper and freshman Nyjah Marcelin up front greatly altered the Liberty (12-8, 9-5) attack. When the Coyotes weren't blocking they were changing the trajectory of kill attempts or forcing the Lions to go for tips.
"That's our style, to win with defense and to win those long rallies defensively. Our goal in the beginning — I knew I had two sophomores and two freshmen starting — was to not look so young on the court. The seniors have been good models for them," Centennial Coach Cari Bauer said.
Liberty is just as young, with one less senior on varsity (three total) than Centennial. Senior right side Alexa Treguboff was the most consistent aspect of the Lions' attack Tuesday, with four kills in game three.
Yet Coach Courtney Johnson saw some promising signs from her younger players. Four juniors and two sophomores regularly see time on the varsity — plus the freshmen and junior varsity won their matches with Centennial Thursday.
"I am very proud of the way they played the whole night, especially in game three. We are a very young team and will have our ups and downs. Playing a team like Centennial they learn how to be faster and smarter because Centennial is a quick, powerful team," Coach Johnson said.
In her first year as varsity coach after more than two decades as an assistant, Bauer knew some young player would step into key roles. Nine seniors graduated from the 2015 team and only this year's four seniors returned to the varsity roster.
She said she's impressed with the seniors' patient leadership, the newcomers ability to learns and the way upperclassmen who are not playing much have embraced younger players who are.
"The seniors help you and you can help your freshmen and show them them how to play. They're going to get better from us and having our seniors will push us for now and next year," Kasney said.
The state playoffs are fast approaching — faster for Liberty than Centennial. A new format embraced by 6A, 5A and 2A this year gives first-round byes to the top eight seeds and the Coyotes are virtually assured one of those spots and a second round home game.
Teams seeded 9-24 will play in a first round game Oct. 27. That almost certainly includes Liberty, which entered Tuesday ranked No. 12 and hopes to win its final three matches and clinch a first round home match.
"I hope we get to host another home game for the state playoffs. The majority of my girls have never been to state. This is their first year on varsity. We're going to have to learn how to keep the fight all three games," Coach Johnson said.
Coach Bauer also believes her squad has learned from recent losses. All seven Coyote defeats came in tournaments at the hands of 6A teams.
Five of the losses were in the Gilbert Invitational last weekend to elite programs like Tempe Corona del Sol, Phoenix Xavier Prep, Phoenix Mountain Pointe and Phoenix Horizon.
The good news for Centennial? Having moved down to 5A from Division I (essentially 6A) that will be the last time the Coyotes will see those teams after hey formed an early-round playoff roadblock for five years.
"We lost to three to Gilbert. We lost in three to Mountain Pointe. We lost in three to Basha. There were lots of little victories that weren't on the scoreboard. We had to figure out how we were going to play without Ashley in our rotation," Coach Bauer said. "We gained some respect. We have a lot of respect for those schools. They've had elite programs forever."