While Desert Hills High School has established itself as the dominant force in Region 10 volleyball over the last decade, and one of the more consistent programs state-wide, in the short few years it’s been around, Crimson Cliffs has seen its program blossom.
In their first three years as a program, the Mustangs have gone over .500 in each of those seasons, and advanced to the 4A semifinals a year ago.
That semifinalist team brought back major pieces, including its top two hitters in seniors Riann Gines and Callie Finlinson.
“They’re huge leaders on the court,” said head coach Gabrielle Hasenbeck. “We can’t run our offense without them. Outsides in general tend to get most of the sets, especially in our system but they terminate, and they terminate a lot. They’re big parts of our offense. I adore all these kids. They’re my favorite team I’ve ever coached.”
Gines entered 2022 as a three-year contributor, bursting onto the scene in 2020 with 310 kills following a freshman season that saw her record 121 kills.
In 2020, Finlinson added 209 kills of her own.
As juniors in 2021, the duo combined for 417 kills, despite Finlinson moving to middle hitter.
Now, back at outside hitter, Finlinson leads the Mustangs with 151 kills, and Gines tails her with 141.
Both are at their best when attacking from the left side, with powerful right arms.
Playing together for Crimson Cliffs and on the same club team, Gines and Finlinson have a knack for knowing where each other is going to be on the court and making the correct and potentially game-changing plays.
Even with all the success the two have had in the past three years leading the Mustangs, it can still be tough love from Hasenbeck.
“We get after it in practice. I hold them accountable,” said Hasenbeck. “They know that the minute we step on the court, we mean business. Practice is very serious — we have fun; don’t get me wrong — but we take everything to heart and so every rep we take is a rep worth taking. The minute they take any rep off, they hold each other accountable.”
Despite losing 4A First Team selection libero Madeline Wallentine to graduation, the Mustangs haven’t lost a step.
Sitting at 5-1 in Region 10 and 10-7 overall, the Mustangs once again find themselves in the mix for a top position in the 4A playoffs in a bunched-up Region 10.
Hasenbeck said her team’s confidence grew following a tournament last weekend in Durango, Nevada, going 3-4 overall against schools that doubled and tripled the size of Crimson Cliffs.
“We were just at Durango and we kind of got a little bit of confidence. I think we underestimate ourselves a little bit so by going to this big tournament with some big top teams in the nation, we competed, and we beat some big teams, so I think we came back with a lot of confidence.”
The Mustangs beat hosts Durango (approximately 2,400 students), Rancho Cucamonga (CA) (3,400), and St. Thomas Aquinas (FL) (2,000) in 2-1 fashion.
After playing seven matches in two days, Hasenbeck’s club returned home and swept Snow Canyon in dominant fashion, creating separation between them and the rest of the region, outside of the powerhouse Thunder, of course.
Gines and Finlinson combined for 19 kills, including a right-handed spike by Gines to close out the Warriors 25-13 in the third set. In the rally prior, it was Finlinson who put one down for Hasenbeck.
“Yeah, that’s pretty typical of both my outsides, to be honest. They take care of business and it’s awesome that I can put them in there — if they make an error, it’s kind of rare.”
More importantly, Gines, Finlinson, and the rest of the seven seniors on this year’s team have been building the culture around the program in its first seasons of existence.
“It’s important to have people who have been in the program for a while just because they’ve been in the school, they represent the school,” Hasenbeck said. “They kind of have the culture that comes with the school, but they also bring maturity. It’s awesome to have maturity on my team for the rest of the girls so in future years, we develop the same culture. They set the tone.”
It was the Thunder who knocked off the Mustangs in the 4A semifinals a season ago. Desert Hills has served up the only in-region loss on the year so far for Crimson Cliffs.
“I just think that we want it,” said Finlinson. “We want it so bad and coming seven seniors, we’ve all played them before. We have the drive, and we work every day and we just know that we can beat them so it’s hard when we have our ups and downs against them, because we know we can do it, we just need to push through.”
Last month, the Thunder beat Crimson Cliffs 3-1, taking the first two sets before a Mustang win in the third staved off a sweep.
In that loss to Desert Hills, it was Finlinson and Gines who led the charge on offense. Finlinson had 14 kills, while Gines added seven of her own.
Despite being right on the heels of the Thunder, Hasenbeck says her team isn’t focused on their Region 10 rival, instead shifting their attention to their ultimate goal, a deep run in the state tournament.
The next test for the Mustangs just happens to be the Thunder on Thursday night at Desert Hills, who remains unbeaten in Region 10 play at 6-0.
Sean Ellertson is a sports reporter for the St. George Spectrum & Daily News. To continue to support his work, please subscribe to The Spectrum. Follow Sean on Twitter @SeanEllertson.