CHANDLER — After having split the regular season series at a game apiece, the American Leadership Academy-Ironwood boys volleyball team knew that its matchup against Chandler Arizona College Prep would be a tough battle.

AZ College Prep defeated the Warriors in four sets: 25-21, 25-23, 14-25 and 25-21 in the first round of the 4A Conference state tournament on Friday.

“It’s tough when you have a lead and you’re up four or five and then just little errors start coming back to bite you,” ALA-Ironwood coach Shawn Close said. “It was just a matter of which team is going to have the most fun and not worry about the small things. I’m super proud of the boys and how they came out and fought for every single point.”

ALA-Ironwood trailed from the start in the first set, but managed to come back and tie the set at 20.

Following a rally point that gave them back possession of the ball, the Knights took a two-point lead off two blocks by Kenan Kao, and then another rally point before a service error gave the ball to the Warriors, who were unable to scratch another point across.

It was a similar case in the second set, as the Warriors again trailed until they tied it at 22. The teams continued to trade points until AZ College Prep capitalized on back-to-back rally points to end the set.

ALA-Ironwood was down a player in Michael Duarte midway through the second set as he went down on a play and was helped off the court. Duarte later returned to the sideline with his ankle bandaged and did not return to the game.

“I told them to just remember to have fun,” Close said. “It’s always tough when you lose one of your players. We knew we weren’t going to get him back; his ankle was pretty beat up, unfortunately. It was just a matter of, ‘Guys, we have to have some heart here. You have to just play for the guys next to you because this might be your last chance to ever play the sport. Just leave it all out there and have no regrets because the worst you can have in life is the regret of, I wish I’d have done something different.’”

Blake Werlinger came on for Duarte and did a solid job of stepping up. Close stated that it just showed his character and his willingness to be that guy, when that was never asked of him during the regular season.

The third set started off differently for the Warriors as they continued to carry the momentum that they had built in the second set, as they jumped out to a 14-9 lead and never allowed the Knights to come within seven points.

The high energy that was on display for most of the match dropped a bit for ALA-Ironwood in the fourth set as AZ College Prep took a 7-4 lead before the Warriors got the ball back, following a kill by Alex Allen.

The excitement lasted very little as the ball went back to the Knights with Nevan Hanford serving, who gave his team the opportunity to extend its lead from 10-5 to 16-5.

AZ College Prep’s lead continued to grow to the point where the team led 20-9.

Something clicked for the Warriors as they began to fight their way back against an overly confident opponent, and they went on a 5-0 run.

The next couple of points for the Knights only came by way of errors by the Warriors, as ALA-Ironwood slowly continued to chip away at the deficit to the point where they were only down 24-21.

Jasson Foy served the ball for ALA-Ironwood as he hoped to keep his team’s season alive.

Austin Lund had a different idea as he slammed the ball back on a rally for the kill to end the match.

Foy is just one of the many seniors on the ALA-Ironwood roster along with Sam Courtemanche, Benjamin Ballard, Ayden Reibolt, Thomas Piokowski, Werlinger, Andy Allen and Alex Allen.

“I couldn’t be prouder of everything they accomplished,” Close said of his seniors. “They did a great job in that third set and then in the fourth set after we were down so much. We were able to claw our way back, and it’s hard when you lose one of your players, but the kids really bounced back and showed a lot of heart.”

The Warriors ended their second season with a 12-6 record and also grabbed their first postseason win in program history earlier in the week during the play-in tournament.

“I couldn’t be happier with how the season went,” Close said. “These kids had only been playing since last March, and for them to come out and compete against guys that have been playing three or four years, it shows a lot about their character and who they are as kids and their work ethic. They always want to try to get better and fix the small things, and I couldn’t be prouder of these boys.”

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Maria Vasquez is the Sports Editor for PinalCentral. She can be reached at mvasquez@pinalcentral.com.

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