LAVEEN — The volleyball team from what used to be a little farm-town school proved it belonged in the postseason of the state’s largest conference Tuesday, but in a match full of comebacks, the Rams’ last one came up just short.

No. 15 Laveen Cesar Chavez and No. 18 Maricopa showed they were evenly matched during a close, five-set match early in the season that the Champions eked out, and that notion was proven true during the 6A Conference play-in round. In a four-set thriller, both teams traded leads throughout the night, and the Rams were just a few points of forcing a fifth.

However, a ball that could have forced a tiebreaker went just out of bound and the home team celebrated moving on to the state playoffs. But through the tears that followed in the Maricopa huddle was also some pride for getting the program this far.

“This was everything we worked for, to get to this moment,” said Maricopa coach Tia Kannapel. “We said we were gonna do postseason, and we did. So all the emotion and everything that went into this was huge. … I think there was a lot of doubt that we could make it this far.”

For a team with 10 seniors, two younger players made a big difference for the Rams, including junior Haylee Brown and freshman Brianna Pino leading the team in kills with 13 and 11, respectively. Pino and sophomore Lisaraye Placencio also had four aces apiece. Chavez’s Keyara Scott led the match with 16 kills and Amiya Stuart had four aces.

The first of the night’s big comeback actually came from the Champions, and the Rams will likely wish they could play the first set over again. After winning three straight points to gain an 11-6 lead, Chavez coach Eureka Hall called a timeout that appeared to change the course. They quickly rallied back and took the lead at 17-16 and extended it all the way to 22-16. The Rams kept fighting, but couldn’t get back in it and lost the set 25-1.

“It was mostly our serve-receive,” Kannapel said. “We were just getting stuck on our heels and couldn’t side out, and that was creating those gaps. So we’re giving them four, five points in a row and we couldn’t make it up.”

The second set was the most one-sided of the night, at the Rams only had the lead once at 10-9. After that, Chavez rattled off five points in a row and never lost the lead. They had set point at 24-17, and the Rams forced three more, but the deficit was too much.

Now down two sets to none, things were looking bleak for Maricopa as they trailed 22-18. Then, with the season slipping away and this breakout team facing a straight-set loss, Kannapel called a timeout.

“I literally just told them ‘one point at a time,’” Kannapel said. “It wasn’t over, and it wasn’t gonna be over until it was 25 to whatever. That’s all I reminded them.”

The thrill of that comeback seemed to carry over to the fourth set, jumping out to an 11-7 lead. However, just as everyone would expect, the Champions clawed their way back in, taking the lead at 14-13. The gap only got bigger from there, and Chavez got to match point with Maricopa only at 18 points. Naturally, the stage was set for one more valiant comeback.

With Rori Gosiak at serve, the Rams clenched to life and won five consecutive points to bring the score to 24-23, but that necessary sixth point proved elusive.

“You know, they don’t quit. I will give them that,” Kannapel said of her team. “We may go through this a lot, but we keep pushing through it, and we just keep riding it out.”

It was the end of the road for the 10 seniors on the team, but they went out having turned around a program that just a year prior went 1-10. Kannapel, in her first year at the head of her hometown program, expressed her gratitude for those seniors, and noted it was fitting that things would conclude with such resiliency.

“There are so many seniors on this team who had a rough few years before this, and to see them say that they’re going to do this, and then do it, has been so great,” she said.

As for the younger players like Brown, Pino and Placencio, Kannapel hopes Tuesday night will provide some valuable experience that will help them go further next season. The key, she said, will be leveling out emotions so they can control more of the game.

“It’s just honestly a game of momentum, and both teams play off of it,” Kannapel said. “There are the highs, and it’s clear when they’re high, and there are the lows, and it’s obvious when they’re low. And truthfully, we have to find that balance. We can’t be occasionally great. Be consistently good. Consistently good beats occasionally great.”

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