The Okkodo High School Bulldogs boys varsity volleyball team won the first set in the best-of-five-set championship game, but the Tiyan High School Titans refused to lose.
Even after losing the emotional opener, with Okkodo’s Jessie Martin and Tiyan’s Xander Duenas pounding kills and igniting their respective offenses, the Titans elevated play and swept the remaining sets. In a four-set thriller, The Titans defeated the Bulldogs 21-25, 25-20, 25-23, 25-19.
“I don’t know what I’m feeling - mixed emotions,” said Duenas, the Titans’ team captain.
In the opening set, Martin and the Bulldogs played emotionally and with precision. Each time the big man pounded a kill, he led the team in celebration. With three kills, a block and an ace, Martin had saved his best game for the finals.
Duenas said that the team was feeling down after dropping the first set, but Okkodo is a tough opponent, not a team to roll over or to be taken lightly.
“It’s an honor to have a more-formidable opponent,” he added. “For me, it was a lot more fun to challenge against them."
But as the match wore on, the once-dominant Bulldogs played as if they were gassed, having given too much of themselves a bit too soon.
While the second set was close, momentum favored the Titans as they appeared fresh and energized, free-swinging and with adrenaline coursing through their veins.
“The more good saves I got, the more good plays I put up for the team, it hyped me up even more and it got me going - fired up even more,” said Tiyan’s Noel Ericsson.
As Tiyan led 20-17, Duenas nailed a point-winning kill shot. On the next point, he tapped a winner to the open court. Okkodo's John Michael Medina answered with a kill shot, but errors plagued the Bulldogs.
At 23-17, two points from tying the match at a set apiece, Duenas crushed his 11th kill and let out a rafter-rattling scream.
An Okkodo service error gifted the set to the Titans.
In set No. 3, Martin and the Bulldogs came back to life, showing the bull-doggish hustle that was absent in the second set.
Having trailed nearly the entire set, Bulldogs’ co-team captain Kevin Factor factored into tying the set at 14 apiece. A few points after teammate Raven Cardines hit his second kill of the set, as a Tiyan shot dropped toward Okkodo’s side of the court, Factor made a diving save - only a finger’s width separating the ball for the court.
As the set continued, the Titans reclaimed the lead for the final time.
At 24-23, after elevating high above the net, Duenas spiked the set-winner.
Although the spectators and benches were cheering wildly, Duenas could be heard calling for his setter to pass him the ball.
“I wanted to pop it, slam it, whatever I could do with that ball to break it,” Duenas said.
Duenas described winning the championship as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.
He added that if someone had told him that the Titans would have emerged from the pandemic as champions, “They’re crazy.”
At 5-5 in set No. 4 the Titans amassed their biggest run of the match. With VJ Rosario’s lethal, high-powered jump serve leading to free and easy points, the Titans led 12-6.
With nearly every Titan capable of blasting serves and keeping their opponent flat-footed or on their heels, Duenas drilled a pair of aces.
Leading by nine points and three points from victory, a couple of Tiyan’s bench players entered the game.
At 23-16, Tiyan’s big man Tiyan’s Dewayne Ngirairikl, standing 6-foot-4, blocked a shot straight down to set up match point.
A service error handed the Titans the title.
In the weeks leading up to the season, with uncertainty if the Guam Department of Education Interscholastic Sports Association would even have a season due to the coronavirus pandemic, Duenas was mostly at home, waiting for some positive news.
Six weeks later, he and the Titans are champions.
“I was, honestly, very skeptical because I was very scared for COVID,” he said. “But once I heard about the protocols, I was ready to play."
For Noel Ericsson, whose highlight-reel saves seemed impossible at times, the championship was made possible with a lot of hard work, sharing that 11-plus months of pandemic-related lockdown wreaked havoc on his physical conditioning.
“The season didn’t start off too well,” he said. … “We all had to get back into shape - push and work hard. The end result was worth it."
One of Noel Ericsson’s brothers, GaryNoah Ericsson, who lost the opportunity to play his senior year because the season was canceled due to the pandemic, dedicated the win to his older sibling.
“Unfortunately, not everything goes our way,” Noel Ericsson said. “It feels good to take one home for not only them, but for the Titan family as well."