Stanfield — The feeling was in the air, momentum was being thrown back and forth, two teams dealing blows one point after another. Two sides of fans screaming their heads off in support of their school, with one looking to keep up their dominance over the other, and all of it happening in a school that touts 249 students and is located off the I-84 corridor in Eastern Oregon. The teams are the Union Bobcats and Stanfield Tigers, two 2A teams that belong to the Blue Mountain Conference. Had this journalist not driven over four hours to this small town, this story would’ve never made the papers or its highlight reel ever seen by the whole state of Oregon, it simply would’ve been noted as a W on the OSAA website and never heard about from outside the mouths of those who were there. Instead, I can share with you all what I declare to be the best volleyball game I have ever seen played.
The Stanfield Tigers have had a roller coaster in recent years for volleyball, going from the cellar, up to around .500, back to the cellar, have a breakout season, return to the cellar, compete again, and you guessed it….back to the cellar. The Spring was rough for the Tigers, finishing with a 2-8 record and getting pummeled in most games. A team that has consistently belittled Stanfield on the court are their conference rival Union Bobcats, and its been torture that has lasted over a decade where the Bobcats obtain sweep after sweep of Stanfield, even when they’ve met in the state playoffs in Stanfield’s strongest seasons.
Saturday featured both teams winning their pool and brackets at Stanfield High School and Echo High School, the hosts of the 2021 Cat Clash. Union was largely expected to win the whole tournament, Stanfield was in the mix with 1A Echo, who had beaten them just five days ago in a clean sweep of the Tigers. After overcoming the hump with Echo, it was time for the Tigers to once again dance with the team that has tortured them for so long. Talking with some faculty and parents, the optimism wasn’t very high that Stanfield would pick up the win, so I prepared for a Union highlight reel and pack it up for my return to the Valley. When the Bobcats arrived, they had brought their posse of fans with them and it was on with a 50/50 gymnasium on a late Saturday afternoon in Stanfield.
The first set saw both teams be dead even with each other, trading punches and not allowing the other to get loose. Stanfield obtained a 20-17 lead late in the first set, however Union wrangled them back in to tie it at 21 each. Union was sitting on set point for the opening frame, leading 24-23 and appeared to have the winning point, but a pokey effort by Stanfield surprised their rival and the game was tied at 24. After a violation by Union, the Tigers were on set point and Lauren Putnam’s ace sealed a first set victory in a best of three championship game. Winning the first set was huge for momentum, but Union wasn’t going to let them go very easily.
The Bobcats came out firing in the second set, rolling past Stanfield to a 17-7 lead and all the momentum seized from the Tigers. Execution and communication was faltering for Stanfield, which was flaring up emotions on the court within the team. The Tigers rallied to make the score 24-16, but Bobcat senior Kaylin Nowak shut the door on them and clinched the second set to force a final duel in the third round. What would happen next couldn’t have even been written in a movie script, it was so absurd and polarizing for even a movie writer’s imagination.
Union would stay even with Stanfield until breaking out to championship point at 15-14 in the final set. The Tigers rallied though, forcing the game to continue after tying it at 15 and it was just the start of Union putting them in the corner. The next play was an unforced error by Stanfield, giving Union championship point for a second time in a row. Katelyn Griffin would get redemption on the next play, drilling a kill past the Union libero and tying the game up again. After knocking the Bobcats off balance on the next play, Union Freshman Paisley Miller threaded the needle and had her bump land inside the court, giving them the championship point for a third time. Another time in the corner, Griffin came through again with the kill to stay alive. After a kill by Miller was rejected by Stanfield, Senior Callie Glenn dumped the ball over the net and a startled Tiger team couldn’t recover, giving Union championship point again.
Stanfield Freshman Mazie Reeser used her size to dunk on top of Union, tying the match against all odds at 18 apiece. Miller drilled a kill to the left side for the Bobcats, making it their sixth consecutive championship point, but once again Reeser came through in the middle to deny Union victory once again. Stanfield, coming off their sixth consecutive survival, had Senior Jennifer Flores serving and a misplay by Union gave Stanfield their first chance to win it up 19-18. On the next play, Stanfield drilled it and Union knocked it straight in the air, but then the entire Bobcat team froze and caught the volleyball as it came down.
Assuming victory, Stanfield stormed the court in celebration while their student section flooded it with them, but Union was arguing that an inadvertent whistle caused them to stop playing. The officials converged and agreed, causing an uproar from Stanfield Head Coach Blaine Ganvoa, who argued that there was no whistle blown inadvertently and that the referees couldn’t make them play the point again. However, the argument didn’t work, with the assistant official eventually stepping in front to direct him back to the bench. This brought a huge emotional outpour from the Tigers, who thought they had finally beaten their long time rival just to be told that it didn’t count. The next play featured Union taking advantage, knocking Stanfield back to square one and tied again at 20 apiece.
Sophomore Zuri Reeser came through for the Tigers in the next play, knocking a kill on a mishandled ball to retake the lead and put them a point away from winning again. This time though, the story would come to a close, as Reeser repeated her same success from the play before, and it was the final nail on the coffin for the Bobcats. With an official 22-20 final set win, the Tigers flooded the court even louder and prouder than before, letting the tears flow and hugs spread around. For Stanfield, they had finally overcame the boogeyman, the Achilles heel, the torture of getting beat by Union for so many years. If anything, this might be the highlight of their entire season if things don’t pan out at state.
It took serious determination and mental toughness to do what they had pulled off, rallying past six straight championship points and getting stripped of their first game winning point in a highly controversial call. It emotionally drained that entire team, and afterwards they didn’t hold back, crying their hearts out, posing for pictures with their peers, and sharing the love across the team and everyone in attendance. After I told the team that was the best volleyball game I’d ever watched, they exploded with the last ounce of fire that they had, loud enough that you could hear it from I-84.
After the dust settled and I made my rounds with girls and Coach Ganvoa, I eventually packed up and began my four plus hour journey back to the Valley, trying to process what I had just witnessed go down in that town of 2,000 people. Mentally and physically, I was dead exhausted from my near 10 hour day of volleyball between Stanfield and Heppner. However, I found myself stimulated and unable to stop reflecting on the best game I had ever seen in person. The game alone was worth the long trip, but Stanfield has delivered me a gift, being able to see what small school sports are about and why they matter as much as the big schools. To Stanfield, thank you for the great game, exciting atmosphere, and memories that I will never forget out of the hundreds of games I’ve covered. Until I return again, keep fighting and never give up, your program is an inspiration for the hundreds of other teams in the state and I’m glad I can tell it to them firsthand.