THORNTON | The Cherokee Trail boys volleyball team has become the answer to a Colorado prep sports trivia question: What team was the first to qualify for the first sanctioned state tournament?
The Cougars and the Stargate Academy were the only one of the eight boys volleyball regionals scheduled to be play Friday and when Cherokee Trail prevailed in five sets on the road, it became the first team to gain admission into the first state tournament in the first season that the sport is officially sanctioned by the Colorado High School Activities Association.
The ninth-seeded Cougars handled the ebb and flow of a match with the scrappy eighth-seeded Eagles — who were buoyed by a raucous home crowd — and closed out a 18-25, 25-17, 28-26, 19-25, 15-10 victory that secured their place in the single elimination state tournament June 25-26 at Rock Canyon High School.
“To be the first-ever state qualifying team, that is awesome,” said Cherokee Trail coach Mike Thomsen, whose team improved to 8-7 on the season.
The Cougars played their only five-set match of the regular season in the finale, which it dropped to Regis Jesuit, another regional qualifier. Cherokee Trail was able to finish on top this time by leading virtually from start to finish in the deciding set.
Stargate Academy (13-2, with its only other loss coming to top-seeded Douglas County, the state championship favorite) dug itself a hole in the fifth set with some early errors and Cherokee Trail took the lead and ran with it.
With the Cougars struggling with giving away points with service errors, Thomsen called on reserve Rocky Xiao for some steady serving and the sophomore came through.
Cherokee Trail ran off three points — two of them on kills by junior outside hitter Hudson Harms, who along with freshman John Clinton did significant offensive damage on the day as junior setter Caden Cole gave them many chances — to take a good lead.
“We were struggling with our serve, which has been the story of our season, so I had a conversation with Rocky and asked ‘can you serve some balls in the court and force them to play the game?’” Thomsen said. “I told him ‘just keep the ball in play and let’s go.”
Xiao did his job, as did sophomore Rohith Thomas, who subbed in to serve for Harms, who needed a rest. Thomas helped the Cougars earn four more points with a run that included his ace that landed just inside the back line on the Stargate Academy side.
A last Eagles surge brought the margin to four, but sophomore Daniel Xiao had a putaway in the middle and Harms ended it with a tip that found the floor.
“Each player had their moment, I don’t think there’s a person on our team that doesn’t think they contributed to the win tonight,” Clinton said. “They gave it their all.”
Added Harms: “That took a lot of hard work and it was super tiring — they had a lot of big guys over there — but I’m glad we came together as a team when it got close. We pushed through and got the win.”
It was a strong end to a match that started out a little rough with Cherokee Trail looking out of sorts with some lineup adjustments. The Cougars rebounded from an opening set loss to take the second and then prevailed 28-26 in the pivotal third set, overcome a number of late service errors that could have ended the match.
Stargate Academy gained the momentum in the fourth set to even it up.
With the regional victory secured, Cherokee Trail can look forward to the state tournament, where its first opponent is yet to-be-determined.
If all the higher seeded teams win their matches on Saturday, the Cougars are likely to draw Douglas County in the opening round. If any other upsets occur, it could shuffle up the seedings.
Harms is just looking forward to the experience.
“For every single person on our team it’s our first time at state, so it’s going to be a super exciting fight,” he said.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports