Needing every win they can get in order to salvage their chance at reaching the 2A Conference state tournament, the Northland Prep Spartans blanked the depleted Camp Verde Cowboys on Tuesday at home, 25-11, 25-10, 25-17, to complete the regular-season sweep of the Central Region foe.
As the short-handed Cowboys struggled to put pressure on the Northland Prep defense, Spartans setter Casey Auza recorded 24 assists while spreading the ball out evenly to her three hitters and helped her team snap a two-match skid.
Sofie Linskey led the attack with seven kills, Rebecca Gerety notched six and Avery Thomas added four, pushing the Spartans to an 8-5 overall record and 3-4 mark in the region. The three hitters were forces behind the service line throughout the night as well, preventing the Cowboys from reaching a lead in the first two sets in addition to stringing consecutive points off the serve throughout the entire match.
Now winners of two of their last five matches, the No. 20 Spartans owned the 10th spot of the rankings on Sept. 28, but losses to region opponents Paradise Honors and Sedona Red Rock and 3A Tuba City pushed Northland Prep outisde of the playoff bubble. Thomas said she hopes the win over the No. 46 Cowboys helps spark a late regular-season push for a postseason bid, something the Spartans haven't missed since the 2013 season.
"We had a lot of away matches at the beginning of the season -- which is really hard for the girls, leaving school early and coming home late," Thomas said. "We've done well so far this season and we have a lot of home matches ahead and a lot of school spirit showing up in the student section every day. Hopefully that gets us pumped and helps us get into states."
Thomas shot off three straight service aces to close out the second set for the Spartans, who are in the midst of a five-match homestand. Before Thomas went to the line, Annabel Angel's serve helped Northland Prep keep up a 9-1 run, during which Gerety put down a kill to give her team a 19-9 advantage before the burst ended with the home team in a commanding 21-10 lead.
Ana Nicol tallied two blocks, and Gerety also had eight digs, with Angel and Savannah Gaun helping the Spartans backrow fight off the Cowboys' tough serves.
Auza set up Linskey for a kill that was sent flying off a defender's dig attempt, pushing the Spartans to an early second-set 10-5 lead. Two points later, the junior setter backset Thomas for a kill on the right side, as the offense started firing up.
"I am proud with how we have been working, because we came into the season with a lot of fresh players and we were working with a younger setter, but all of our hitters have come in and really adjusted," said Thomas, a senior.
Fourth-year Spartans head coach Lacey Ebersole has also been pleased with her young setter's growth.
"She is definitely controlling the court now," Ebersole said. "She sets the tempo, knows who to set and is very consistent for us."
The third-set woes that have been a struggle for the Spartans crept into Tuesday's match, however. Unable to go ahead in the first two sets, let a lone reach a tie, Camp Verde took its first lead of the match in the final frame on an ace and stayed with Northland Prep, which has averaged a match-low 17.1 points in the third set this season.
"Our goal is one match at a time down this stretch to end the season," Ebersole said. "We are going to do what we can, play hard, work hard in practice and try to be more consistent."
The Spartans, with Gerety at the service line, went on a 6-0 run toward the end of the third and final frame to take a comfortable 24-17 lead, regrouping from the slow start. Linskey's hitting error ended the burst at match point, but the junior and first-year varsity hitter put the match-winner into the back-right corner on her ensuing swing to call it a night.
"It's all mental, the girls are very capable of doing what they put their minds to," Ebersole said.
Glendale Prep beat Sedona Tuesday to take sole possession of the Central Region with a 6-0 mark.
Only four regular-season matches remain on Northland Prep's schedule, three of which are at home before the team ends it on the road against Sedona.
Northland Prep, which toppled Camp Verde 3-0 in the team's first meeting, hosts the 3A Page Sand Devils Thursday looking to get another regular-season sweep and move up the power rankings.