Horizon volleyball

Horizon fell short in the quarterfinals last season but played with a chip on its shoulder this year, winning the 5A title.

Horizon head volleyball coach Valorie McKenzie was overcome with emotion as she posed with her team at the end of the 5A Conference title Saturday evening at Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

Her team, filled with players she said are not only talented but mentally tough, had just completed a sweep of Millennium to win the 5A championship. For McKenzie, who last won a title in 2009, it was a long time coming.

Especially after falling short last year with a team she truly believed would win it all.

“It’s amazing,” McKenzie said. “We strive for this and last year we went out early and we shouldn’t have. We keep making the state playoffs but just haven’t been able to get to the semis. I’ve had talented teams that just didn’t have that mental, emotional strength that could go all the way.

“This team isn’t all about talent. We worked really hard on our mental strength this year and it really made a difference for them.”

The loss to Cactus Shadows last year allowed Horizon to enter the 2021 season with a chip on its shoulder. That carried over all year as the Huskies were the top seed in the tournament and knocked off Cactus Shadows in the semifinals.

From there, they knew they could capitalize and continue their run to the trophy. They did just that, winning in convincing fashion, 25-14, 25-14 and 25-15 over the second-ranked Tigers.

“I thought we were going to win state last year,” McKenzie said. “But coming into this year, these kids, they felt like we were winners, and we were going to work hard. And they did.”

Horizon was in command from the start of the title match. The Huskies, older and with more size at key positions than Millennium, immediately made its presence felt.

Senior Taylor Johnson played one of the best matches of her high school career, according to McKenzie, as she was dominant both on defense and offense, accounting for most of her team’s kills. Junior outside hitter Kendal Murphy was also key for the Huskies, while senior outside hitter Eden Driescher and senior libero Kaden Young accounted for several digs to limit Millennium.

It was an overall team effort for Horizon, and one Johnson said they had aimed for since last year’s heartbreak.

“It’s just so exciting, we’ve been trying to do this for four years,” Johnson said. “We were just all on. There’s nothing else to say except we all showed up and we all played our game. I always play better when I’m having fun and tonight was a lot of fun.”

The Huskies became the second Scottsdale high school to win a title on Saturday, with Notre Dame winning the match before in similar dominant fashion.

But even as the team posed for pictures, McKenzie said it still hadn’t set in. While it may take time for that to happen, it’s one she will cherish for a while.

“It’s been a long time and I really believed we could do it this year and it finally happened,” McKenzie said. “I had a special feeling for this year. It overwhelmed me emotionally more than it has in the past.

“It really hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s hard to believe. My kids played so well tonight. IT was unbelievable to me.”