It isn’t hard to figure out why there was always a crowd at Flagstaff’s War Memorial Gymnasium during the fall.
The crowds were there to watch one of the 4A Conference’s top volleyball teams, along with one of its most exciting players in Eagles outside hitter Gracelyn Nez.
Nez was electrifying as a sophomore this season, putting on hitting clinics match in and match out as she led Flagstaff to a 15-3 regular-season record, the team’s fourth straight Grand Canyon Region title and a second straight 4A state tourney semifinals appearance as the No. 3 seed.
“A lot of people just came to see what the hype is about,” Eagles head coach Beth Haglin said.
Despite the season ending with an abrupt 3-0 sweep to No. 2-seeded Estrella Foothills in the semifinals, it was easily Nez’s favorite volleyball season she has ever played.
“I think this is my favorite year, out of all the years,” Nez said. “It wasn’t stressful, it wasn’t painful when we lost. It was more fun, just really fun.”
For her dominant play all around the court for the Flagstaff Eagles, Nez has been named the 2019 Arizona Daily Sun Volleyball Athlete of the Year. For the season, she led the Eagles' attack with more than 400 kills on a .265 hitting percent when counting tournament games played outside the power-points schedule en route to earning Grand Canyon Region Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Haglin said if there was any one defining moment for Nez, it came in one of the toughest games of the 2019 season for the team.
Flagstaff rolled through the Grand Canyon region, having lost just one match to Coconino in the final game of the regular season. Flagstaff had just beat Cactus 3-0 to open the 4A playoffs, setting up its third match of the season against region rival Bradshaw Mountain.
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The Eagles took both wins in the regular season by scores of 3-2 against Bradshaw. For the third meeting, the Bears brought their own crowd to try and match that of Flagstaff's during the postseason. The Eagles had dealt with tough crowds all season, playing through it at Lee Williams and at Coconino High School to finish the year.
But rarely did the crowds come to Flagstaff’s home court the way Bradshaw did.
Nez played through chants directed at her as she silenced the Bradshaw faithful over and over again, leading her team to another five-set win over the Bears. Nez finished the five-set marathon with 19 kills and 25 digs as she performed exactly when her team needed it -- all while getting support from the Eagles’ community.
“Gracelyn’s answer was to just blister the ground, and then the crowd erupted all in support of her,” Haglin said of the Bradshaw game. “I felt like that was a defining moment for her and our program in the sense that she feels like everyone is behind her. It was remarkable.”
Flagstaff’s student section was loud and supportive in their own right, but Nez had her own not-so-little section each home game.
Nez’s family, friends and supporters consistently showed up to War Memorial, coming from all across northern Arizona -- including the reservation. That support and backing, Nez said, is mostly credited to her parents for getting everyone rallied around her.
“I think it’s my parents. They want all the support I can get and they get it every single game,” Nez said.
For Haglin, seeing the way those around Nez rally and support her the way they have is great for Nez and the rest of the Eagles squad.
"I feel like there has been so much support, and I think it's great for her to see them and for them to be a part of it all," Haglin said. "They're just as important as she is."