Crater's Katie Higgins, left, tips the ball while teammate Taylor Mackey (9) looks on and South Albany's Amy Trower (15) and Kassandra Vanbeek prepare to return at the net during Wednesday's playoff match.

Crater ends playoff drought

CENTRAL POINT — The ball was set perfectly and all that was left for Taylor Mackey to do was reach. She leaped up and up, higher than she ever had before. Even after two hours of non-stop play, she found the extra spring in her legs.

With one crashing blow from well above the net, the Comets' junior co-captain signaled that a new era in Crater volleyball had begun.

"I was just reaching high and wanting to win and put it away," said Mackey, who finished the night with 12 kills. "We knew what we had to fight for, so we kept it together and did what we had to do."

Mackey's winning kill climaxed a roller-coaster of a match as the Comets earned their first state playoff victory since 2002 with a dramatic 24-26, 25-9, 25-17, 22-25, 16-14 triumph over South Albany on Wednesday night at the Crater High School Gymnasium. The first-round Class 5A victory earns the Comets (6-6) a rematch with top-ranked Crook County in Prineville on Saturday. The Cowgirls swept the Comets in the second round two years ago en route to the first of back-to-back 5A state titles.

"It means Crater is starting to build something," second-year Crater coach Kristina Alvarez said. "My girls are young. They needed to know they could beat a team of juniors and seniors."

South Albany (7-8) was making its first playoff appearance in nine years with a team that featured nine seniors. With Amber Webber (16 kills) and Elisabeth Yates (12 kills) leading the way, there were several moments in the fourth and fifth games when it appeared the Rebels might steal a victory.

But it was Mackey, senior Katie Higgins (10 kills, three blocks), sophomore libero Dennae Grant (19 digs) and freshman outside hitter Renee Murphy who consistently came through with the clutch plays for Crater. On a team that dressed just two seniors on Wednesday, Murphy moved to the varsity at midseason and has played with the poise of an upperclassman. She had four of her 12 kills in the fifth game.

"Everybody's happy to see her succeed," Alvarez said of Murphy. "She's been starting the last three matches and prior to that, she'd been coming in off the bench really quick."

The Comets came into the match having lost five of six. They dropped Game 1 on a net court serve by Callie Durst at game point, but rebounded to take the next two and seemed in control of the match.

But Crater lost a chance to close out the match in four on a series of errors after it was tied at 21-all. The Comets then led 7-4 in the fifth before the Rebels ripped off four straight points to take the lead.

"That's a young team that hasn't done this before," Alvarez said. "I told them 'stay aggressive: pass, set, hit.'"

Murphy got a touch kill to give Crater a 9-8 lead, but the game was tied four more times before Sara Haga's kill brought Crater to match point at 15-14.

Junior Kayla Hopkinson, who contributed 19 digs and six aces, delivered another perfect set for her 39th assist of the night and Mackey, who also had 16 digs, closed the door.

"We do not have a dominant player," Alvarez said. "If they don't work together as a team, they're not going to be as good as they can be."

If anyone was smiling more than Mackey, it was Alvarez, who pocketed her first career playoff victory.

"Last year, I was just there trying to survive," Alvarez said. "Now I have a clear vision of what Crater can be. We're a working class, blue-collar, work our hardest community."

And one whose season will stretch into the month of November.

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