Arlington’s Malia Shepherd (left) and Stanwood’s Olivia Rueckert battle at the net with Stanwood’s Grace Henken looking on Thursday night at Stanwood High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Arlington’s Malia Shepherd (left) and Stanwood’s Olivia Rueckert battle at the net with Stanwood’s Grace Henken looking on Thursday night at Stanwood High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Stanwood defeats rival Arlington in 5-set volleyball thriller

The Spartans win the back-and-forth match 3-2 and take the inside track on the Wesco 3A/2A league title.

STANWOOD — Entering Thursday night’s rivalry matchup with Stanwood, the Arlington High School volleyball team had been about as dominant as it could be in Wesco 3A/2A play.

The Eagles, ranked third in Class 3A in the Washington State Volleyball Coaches Association poll, were 11-0 and hadn’t dropped a set in league play.

But the rival Spartans didn’t flinch when Arlington came to town.

Stanwood won the first two sets in extra points and weathered a furious comeback to outlast the Eagles in a 27-25, 26-24, 15-25, 14-25, 15-13 thriller in front of a raucous crowd at Stanwood High School.

“That was really, really fun,” Spartans coach Megan Amundson said. “That’s the kind of volleyball you want to see, not just in high school volleyball, but in rivalry volleyball. That’s a fun match to play on both sides of the net.”

Stanwood (12-1, 11-1 Wesco 3A/2A) delivered an impressive defensive effort against hard-hitting Arlington (12-2, 11-1). Spartans middle blocker Cailyn Conley, a 6-foot-4 senior, shadowed Arlington standout Emily Mekelburg most of the night and used her size to help contain the Eagles’ attack with a number big-time blocks, including the game-winner in the fifth set. Senior Olivia Rueckert added four blocks to a stellar performance by the frontline of the defense.

“She’s played in the middle, she’s played on the outside for us,” Amundson said of Conley. “She’s a fantastic player.”

Stanwood’s backline was just as solid while delivering point-saving dig after point-saving dig throughout the evening. Senior Karlie Niegemann led the way with a game-high 24 digs. Senior Baylor Hezel and junior Barrett Anderson each added 11.

Anderson (16 kills), Hezel (12 kills) and Rueckert (11 kills) led a balanced offense attack.

The victory gives the Spartans the inside track on a Wesco 3A/2A title with just three matches remaining, including a clash with third-place Snohomish on Oct. 27. If they win out, the Spartans will be league champs.

“I want one match at a time,” Amundson said. “We’ve talked about it from the beginning of this season that our .. league schedule really amps up at the end of the year. … It’s gut-check time.”

It was also a bit of revenge for Stanwood. The Spartans fell 2-1 to Arlington in the championship game of the Reach the Peak tournament in September.

“We’ve been preparing for this all season,” senior Neigemann said. “So it was really exciting to finally earn it.”

Arlington is now one of three one-loss teams in Wesco 3A/2A, alongside Snohomish and Stanwood.

Malia Shepherd finished with 16 kills, five aces and five digs, Mekelburg had 13 kills and fives aces and Taylor Pederson added 27 assists, 10 digs and five kills.

The Spartans eked out the first two sets after overcoming late Arlington rallies.

Stanwood led the first 19-13 before the Eagles took 10 of the next 11 points and a 24-20 lead. The Spartans answered back with five straight and Anderson sealed up the set with a hard, right-handed spike from the left side.

In Set 2, Stanwood scored the first four and never trailed while compiling 20-15 lead. But six unanswered points from Arlington made it 21-20 Eagles. The Spartans buckled down and retook the lead, eventually taking the set 26-24 on a Conley block.

Arlington roared back with a pair of convincing set victories, 25-15 and 25-14. But Stanwood regained its early-match form in a back-and-forth fifth set that featured seven lead changes.

“We have 10 seniors on our roster, so it’s definitely a seasoned (and) tested team,” Amundson said. “… They’ve been waiting for this. With the short season last year, no postseason, they just came into this year hungry.

“This is a fantastic win for us.”

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