By Eric Butler: CNJ correspondent
ALBUQUERQUE — When the last shot of the Class 1A state volleyball championship went down for a winner it was evident the biggest edge for the Fort Sumner Vixens was experience.
At Johnson Gym in Albuquerque, Fort Sumner took the title with a 25-17, 25-20, 18-25, 22-25, 15-13 victory over Tatum on Saturday.
Experience was what the Vixens did not have last year. It was what the opposing Coyotes did not have this year.
And it was all just fine and dandy for a trio of Fort Sumner’s six seniors who were clipboard-toting eighth-graders the last time the Vixens grabbed a state title.
“It means so much. It was our last chance and it was our only state championship,” Fort Sumner senior Tobea Patterson said. “I remember Leslie (Wood), Kayla (Britain) and I were taking stats the last time we won it.”
Patterson sent home the match-winner with a hard, no-nonsense blast down the line from her left-side hitting position.
“Actually, I just prayed and didn’t even think about it. Then I just went up to hit it,” said Patterson of the brief moment before she jumped and swung away.
In taking its first title since 2000, Fort Sumner (23-3) displayed sometimes chilling offensive efficiency in dispatching the Coyotes in the first two games.
Britain pounded home 23 kills while Sandy Fortner added 20 and Patterson collected 19 in the versatile Vixens’ attack.
But Tatum (23-3), coached by Mike Majors, showed youthful resiliency in stiffening up defensively against the Vixens in games three and four. While Wood, who distributed assists to six different teammates from her setter position, praised the Coyotes, she also said her squad had something to do with bringing back Tatum from the edge.
“I don’t want to take away from Tatum, because they’ve got a good team,” Wood said. “But you’re not always going to be perfect. We just pulled through in the end — that’s all that matters.”
Though Fort Sumner looked shaky at times during the fourth game, a late surge by the Vixens helped their confidence heading into game five.
Tatum, which didn’t have a senior on the court, held a 22-14 lead in game four when a kill by Britain fell to the floor in the heart of the Coyotes’ defense — a rare easy kill for Fort Sumner in the latter stages of the match.
The Vixens went on to score the next six points as well. Tatum did eventually close out the game and force a fifth, but the Vixens run was a meaningful one, according to Fort Sumner coach Lisa McMath.
“I think it helped us a lot going into the fifth game,” McMath said. “We kind of got into a little slump and were playing conservative. We just had to let go of that conservatism and go all-out.”
In the fifth game, four hard-hit kills by Fortner helped stake Fort Sumner to a quick 5-1 lead. Though Tatum was able to climb back into the game, the Coyotes never went ahead again.
“We just wanted to stay ahead the whole time, even if it was just by one point,” Patterson said.
Fort Sumner fell in the state semifinals last year to eventual champion Des Moines. The Vixens also lost title games in 2001 to Texico and in 2002 to Des Moines.
“I knew that we could pull together. We’ve been in that position a lot of times. We just have so much love and passion for the game that we weren’t going to let any ball hit,” Fortner said.
“And we weren’t going to get second or third ever again.”