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Volleyball: Safford beats Empire, punches ticket to state playoffs

October 28, 2015 by Andy Morales, AZPreps365

Freshman Deion Abalos is leading Safford in assists. 
(Andy Morales/

Safford and Empire met in a high stakes match Wednesday for a shot at the Division III playoffs and the Bulldogs came away with a 3-0 sweep to win Section III. Safford (9-7, 8-0 in section play) came in ranked 33rd while Empire (10-6, 7-1) was 37th. With only 16 teams making the playoffs, it was obvious the loser would be out.

This was the second year in a row Empire had to come up big in a in-or-out playoffs situation. Empire got past Amphitheater in the final moments of the season last year when both teams were also undefeated in section play but were also ranked outside of the top 16. The Ravens pulled it off last year but there was no magic this year.

Safford and Empire battled back and forth in the first set but Safford pulled off the 25-23 win and then went on to win the second set 25-12 and the third 25-13 for the sweep.

Junior outside Taylor Hatfield is leading Safford in kills but it was her four aces in a row to win the third set that stood out the most. It was almost an exclamation point on a season that began with two losses and a 3-10 record but ending with a section championship.

"We came together after a really rough start," Hatfield said. "We didn't really expect this but we started to realize we had this chance a couple of weeks ago and we started playing together."

Head coach Lori Walden is in her first year at Safford and she also saw the second half of her season as a second chance.

"We have come a long way but we still have things to work on," Walden said. "We didn't start the year off well but we are starting to be more consistent. We saw what Empire was doing a couple of weeks ago and we knew it might come down to this and it did."

The loss breaks the Raven's playoff streak at three years in a row but junior setter Kayla Long wants the Empire community to know she guarantees a playoff trip next year.

"I want people to know we are coming out fighting next year," Long said. "Be ready because we are going to the playoffs."

Long already holds all the setting records at Empire and she can make them out of reach after her senior year but she is more concerned about her team.

"This was disappointing," Long added. "But we have to struggle to know how important it is when we win. We can't take it for granted."

Long inherited the leadership of the team with the graduation of Macee Owen. She showed some of that leadership by walking over to the microphone after the match and she thanked the crowd for showing up and supporting her team.

"I wanted to thank the crowd because we made a big issue of this game and we let them down," Long added.

While I'm sure the players did not let the crowd down, it was a classy moment from Long.

The Volleyball Bracket Show will be streamed live at noon on Friday. Find out where Safford gets placed.