The Justin-Siena volleyball team had written off its season 11 days before, after falling to league nemesis Branson in a CIF North Coast Section Division IV playoff quarterfinal.
Only the quarterfinal winners usually qualify for the Northern California playoffs. But a week later, having moved on from the sport mentally, they found out they had received the No. 6 seed in the Division V NorCals and would host No. 11 Escalon on Wednesday night at Clark Gym.
Though the Cougars had to ride two hours to the match, they were ready to go. They had known for a week they would be playing somewhere Wednesday night, continuing to practice after falling in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinals a week before.
With at least as many fans as the Braves had rooting them on, the shorter Cougars set the tone early by returning one thunderous kill attempt after another by Justin-Siena standout Julia Sangiacomo. Forcing the 6-foot-3 junior to change her game, Escalon and its four senior captains controlled the match and prevailed, 25-20, 18-25, 25-20, 25-23.
The Cougars (18-11) earned a second-round match at No. 3 seed Mt. Madonna-Watsonville on Saturday.
“I have to give Escalon a lot of credit. They just didn’t give up,” Braves head coach Chelsea Reilley said. “They were fearless back there. I would have been terrified if I saw Julia on the other side, but they just came in ready to go. They dug her, they were getting touches on their blocks, slowing it down. They did a great job. I’m impressed. They were more than we expected.”
The Cougars’ second-year head coach, Teresa Williamson said she knew nothing about the Braves (11-13) coming in, including Sangiacomo. But she said some of the Cougars’ Trans-Valley League opponents put plenty of velocity on the ball, especially champion Hilmar, so her players were ready.
“I just have to say our defense is one of the best attributes of our game and we really stepped up and dug her,” Williamson said of Sangiacomo, the 2016 Napa Valley Player of the Year. “She obviously found holes, though.”
Sangiacomo finished with a match-high 28 kills, a mix of hard smashes and soft hits over blockers or between defenders.
The first two of freshman Megan Hanson’s six kills and the first of sister Nicole Hansen’s four kills helped the Braves race to a 14-8 lead in the first set. But three big kills by Kaitlyn Herrera sparked the Cougars’ comeback, combined with her teammates’ digs – junior captain Meadow Naraghi’s return of a Sangiacomo blast not only went over the net but landed just inside the Braves’ back line.
Maryanne Anitoni helped Justin-Siena knot the match in the second set. Behind the Senior middle’s four kills, Justin-Siena tied it 1-1 and never trailed after that despite seeing an 18-12 lead shrink to 18-15.
“We talked a little bit about changing it up, not just going up and trying to swing,” Reilley explained. “I told them ‘Let’s tip, let’s place it better. You don’t have to go out and swing as hard as you can. Let’s find a spot where they’re not.’ I think we made that adjustment in Game 2.”
Peyton Newell added two kills in the second set for the Braves.
“We talked about incorporating our middles,” Reilley sad. “We’re very outside heavy, so they kind of know where it’s going – to the tall girl on the outside – so we said ‘Let’s get Maryanne and Peyton involved.’ We started setting to them and they rose to the occasion.”
The third set saw the Braves rally from an 11-7 deficit, fight through three ties, and take an 18-15 lead on a block by setter Shelby Thomason and a Megan Hanson kill. After two long volleys, the teams were tied again at 20-20. But senior Brielle Arauza served out the Cougars’ win with deliveries that made it hard for the Braves to set up their offense.
“We kind of reverted back in Game 3, going out and just swinging, playing a little timid, not expecting the ball to come back over,” Reilley said.
The fourth set was the tight, as the teams tied for the ninth time at 18-all. But Escalon had the lead for good after that, winning on Justin-Siena’s 15th missed serve of the night. The Cougars missed only seven serves.
“We were only losing by a couple of points, so those missed serves were killers,” Reilley said.
One reason the Braves had a chance in every set might have been because league rival Branson had needed five games to beat them in their previous match, 25-21, 25-22, 21-25, 24-26, 15-8, in the section quarterfinal on Nov. 4.
“Branson is scrappy like them,” Reilley said. “But frankly, we just hadn’t practiced (enough). I love that we got to play another day, but we got thrown into it. We had all of last week off, thinking we were done for the year.”
Nicole Hansen and Gina DiMare said they and fellow seniors Catalina Garcia, Kendall Martin, Kennedy Heil and Antoni were excited to have their final seasons extended.
“It was crazy when we heard we had another match. We were jumping up and down, really excited,” Nicole Hansen said. “But having only two days to practice, with limited gym space and time because of basketball season starting, we weren’t quite there. We were frantic tonight.”
Added DiMare, “When we heard the No. 1 seed (in Division V) was San Marin, which we beat in our league, we thought ‘This will be really good.’ But I think our confidence may have gotten to us. When you assume your season’s over and then you try coming back, it’s pretty difficult. Especially when six of us are seniors, thinking ‘All right volleyball’s over, time to start coaching,’ because none of us are going to play at the college level.”
Martin, a standout hurdler, was ready to start focusing on track and field season. The libero looked ready from the start, though, making a miracle save over the net that landed just inbounds for a 2-1 lead.
“Volleyball is all about reps and when you don’t have that for a whole week, thinking the season’s over, it’s definitely hard, and (Escalon) had their full season,” Martin said. “We also missed two weeks (two league matches) because of the fires. They definitely came out a lot better than we expected. They got a lot of balls up that we weren’t expecting either. Now it’s track season.”