While American Canyon High volleyball fans were thinking “Oh no, not again,” Kahli Kyee and Jessica Kei Moncada weren’t too worried that their senior seasons were in peril Monday night.
They had been to the playoffs before.
Hosting a Livingston team seeded last in the 17-team CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoff bracket, 16th seed American Canyon relinquished sizable leads in losing the first two sets of the play-in match.
The battle of the Wolves saw American Canyon take another big lead in Game 3 but hold on for the win, dominate Set 4, and then make a comeback of their own in Game 5 to seal their first-ever postseason victory, 22-25, 23-25, 26-24, 25-18, 17-15.
American Canyon led 18-13 and 21-18 in the opening set, but aggressive serving by Livingston senior libero and captain Alondra Zamora sparked her team’s comeback.
In the second set, which featured several long rallies, American Canyon was up 15-7 and 20-18. The hosts went up 23-22 on a dink to a hole by freshman Kenzie Dado. But a missed serve and huge kills by Kaci Schmidt and senior Natalie Espinoza capped another Livingston comeback.
American Canyon raced to another 15-7 lead in the third set. Once again, the visitors surged back but never took the lead. It was tied at 20, 23 and 24 before Kyee got a kill to drop just inside the back line, and Raizel Dimalanta served an ace for the final point.
Livingston’s players weren’t much taller than American Canyon’s. But they could leap, and they peppered American Canyon’s back row with kill attempts all night.
“We were trying to stay calm and composed and just play our game,” said Moncada, who led the Wolves with 43 digs from her libero spot. “I think in the first and second games, the pre-game jitters were still there because our team is fairly young. But I think in the third set we finally woke up and thought ‘Nothing big, we’ve been playing volleyball for a long time and we know the basics so let’s just play our game.’ We (seniors) have made sure to connect with the underclassmen, and I feel like that benefits us a lot.”
Set 4 was all American Canyon. The hosts never led by less than four points and won by seven.
“My team is pretty good at getting ourselves out of holes and re-motivating ourselves, so I knew that we could push it to the fifth set,” said Kyee, who had a team-high nine kills and added 22 digs. “We tried to focus on the next point, and only the next point, instead of the big picture.”
American Canyon turned the tables in that final set, which saw Livingston lead most of the way. But Kyee and senior Desiree Ernst served the hosts back from a 14-13 deficit to the 17-15 win.
Maligie called a timeout when it was 14-13.
“I told them ‘They won the first two games to five, but it’s the third one that matters, so let’s make sure we get it.’ That’s pretty much it,” she recalled. “I have two girls who have been to playoffs before who I can for advice (in timeouts) and what they’ve got going in their heads.”
Added Kyee, “We said, ‘We’re down but we can always come back. Just play volleyball, do what you know, especially since it’s our last home game. Put everything on the court,’ and we did. Our defense has been really good this season.”
Dado added eight kills and Ernst six kills for American Canyon, while Maranda Azurin tallied 33 digs, and Katherine Montuya chipped in three kills and two blocks.
It was the first postseason win and then some for fourth-year American Canyon head coach Katy Maligie, whose 2014 and 2015 squads lost 3-0 in their playoff openers on the road. Last year’s Wolves didn’t even get to the postseason.
“It’s a longtime coming,” Maligie said, “but it’s all them. I can only put the best people on the court and whether they perform or not is up to them, and they did a great job. Lots of (playoff) firsts tonight – we’d never hosted before, never won a set before, never won a match, so it’s exciting.“
Kyee said the key was the mental strength Maligie has instilled in her players so they can compete with the other Solano County Athletic Conference powers.
“Coach Maligie teaches us in practice how to come back when we’re down, so we do that a lot, especially because we have hard teams like Vanden and Benicia in our league,” she said. “It wasn’t just the seniors who wanted this, but the underclassmen too. Kenzie, our freshman, is really helping us out.”
After Livingston traveled about 125 miles for Monday’s match, American Canyon had to go about the same distance to the Sierra foothills to take on No. 1 seed Sonora on Tuesday night and fell to the Wildcats, 25-16, 25-13, 25-9.
Moncada had 10 digs and lls: Yani Kenion, Kyee, Ernst and Montuya each had two kills.
“The Wolves held their own in the first game, going point for point with Sonora, but ultimately the speed and power of Sonora was too much,” Maligie said. “Although the outcome was not ideal, it was a great end to an amazing season. The girls fought hard for every point.”
With American Canyon moving into the North Coast Section next fall, this is the last school year for its teams to put SJS playoff feathers into their caps. The volleyball program did just that Monday night.
“My team is really young, so they’ve haven’t seen a whole lot of playoff-level play and just that pressure-situation kind of game, so tonight was a learning experience for a lot of them,” Maligie said Monday. “I think once they got over that and they realized that their season could be over if they didn’t pick it up, they refocused in that third game and pushed through it.”