High above the court in Calistoga High’s main gym hangs a section championship banner commemorating the school’s 2018 volleyball team.

On it is the entire Wildcats roster and coaching staff that swept through the Div. 6 North Coast Section playoffs last fall to deliver the only section title by a girls team in school history.

To make the accomplishment even more impressive, it was the only section title won by any team in the entire Napa Valley this school year.

For their historic performance, the Napa Valley Register is naming the entire 2018 Calistoga volleyball team the 2018-19 Napa County Female Athletes of the Year.

“Probably just lucky timing that we were the only team that took a section title in Napa County this season, as there is so much talent out there, but it wasn’t just luck that brought us to the championship title,” Calistoga head coach T’Anne Butcher wrote in an email this week while traveling in Northern Europe. “Being selected for this award is an honor and we are very proud to represent Napa County and Calistoga.”

In her fourth season at the helm, Butcher led the Wildcats to their best season in program history – and arguably one of the best seasons from any sport in school history.

As the No. 8 seed, the Wildcats swept through the NCS playoffs, upsetting the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds on the road before capturing the section title with a four-set win over No. 10 seed Jewish Community School in front of a capacity crowd at Calistoga High.

Their season ended a game later in the first round of the Div. 6 NorCal playoffs, but it was still by far the furthest that any volleyball team in school history had gone.

“We won a section title and no one else did, so finally someone recognized this, our hard work. It’s just unbelievable,” said Litzy Infante, an incoming senior who was a key hitter for the Wildcats last season. “I’m really proud of our volleyball team because we did go a really long way. We went from literally nothing to this really big accomplishment.”

An improbable journey

Ask any member of the team how they felt at the beginning of the season and they will say the same thing.

“We didn’t think we were going to win at all,” said Hayseel Barrera, an all-around player and incoming senior who shared All-County Volleyball Player of the Year honors this year with NCAA Division I Santa Clara-bound Julia Sangiacomo of Justin-Siena. “We were going to still play hard, but I honestly didn’t think we’d be as successful as we were.”

With no seniors on the roster and only three returning varsity players, the Wildcats boasted an exceptionally young team. None of the players even play club volleyball, and most didn’t start in the sport until they reached high school.

That was evident early on as the Wildcats went 1-6 to open the season, winning only one set during their six losses. But that was somewhat by design, Butcher said last fall. She wanted to get her young team up to speed quickly by playing against bigger and tougher teams.

Still, team morale took a hit with the tough start and Butcher saw that she needed to make a change.

“We were finding our rhythm with lineups and positions,” she wrote. “We were playing more as individuals, not as a team. … I sat the team down and told them ‘This is it. We need to turn things around now and get back on track.’”

Around then, an injury to one of their top setters provided another hurdle for the Wildcats to navigate. But figuring out how to right the ship also worked to bring the already small team closer.

One crucial aspect that emerged out of that need to come together came in the form of a collective change of outlook.

“If you smile, even if you don’t mean it, it brings up the team and it brings up your mindset,” said Vanessa Quiepo, another all-around player and incoming senior. “Just smile, even if you’re doing badly. … I’d smile even if we were in the worst mood and we were down by a lot, and somehow we’d get back in it.”

With these adjustments in mind, the season began to turn.

The Wildcats won six of their first seven North Central League III games, bringing their overall record to 7-7.

They ended up going 9-3 in league play, placing second behind 12-0 Mendocino.

By the time the regular season ended, the Wildcats’ record stood at 9-9, good enough to get into the NCS playoffs. But they headed into the postseason on a sour note after dropping their league finale to Potter Valley, a team they had already beaten once that season.

“I feel like, not just me, but all of us were just going into playoffs to play hard but have fun, too,” Barrera said. “We didn’t have the mentality of winning.”

That changed after they swept Potter Valley in three sets in first round of the playoffs.

“Coming into playoffs, our attitude was still really low,” Quiepo said. “But winning the first game and then winning again and winning again is what built it.”

It was at that point that a number of the Wildcats said they felt things really start to click with their team. They were starting to practice what they had preached throughout the regular season, and it was working.

But even with momentum, being the No. 8 seed in a 16-team playoff can be daunting task. If you win your first-round game, more than likely you’ll be facing the No. 1 seed in the next round, which is exactly how it played out for Calistoga.

Luckily for the Wildcats, being the underdogs was nothing new for them.

“At this point, I felt we had tremendous momentum,” Butcher wrote. “The girls were so focused at practice and they were proving to be a powerful team physically, but especially emotionally. There was a really strong team bond that developed as our positivity and support for each other grew.”

Their resiliency was on full display in the quarterfinals against No. 1 seed Fremont Christian.

They dropped their first set to the Warriors but rallied to win the next three to pull the upset on hostile ground. The goal heading into the playoffs was simply to make it to the quarterfinals. Suddenly, they were on their way to the semifinals, where No. 4 seed St. Bernard’s waited.

Located a good four hours north in Eureka, St. Bernard’s had taken a similar path to the NCS playoffs. The Crusaders had started the season 0-12 before going an undefeated 8-0 in the Humboldt-Del Norte Little 7 League.

They came into their semifinal matchup with Calistoga fresh off a four-set win over No. 5 seed Emery, thinking that their path to a section title was easily within grasp.

“We walked in to their gym and they looked at us like they were going to scrape us,” Infante said.

The Crusaders soon learned that the Wildcats were not a team to underestimate.

After splitting the first two sets, Calistoga won the next two and once again got to celebrate on another team’s home court.

As they headed into the final stretch of their drive back home to Calistoga the next day, the Wildcats got their first realization of what they had achieved. They were met by a police escort on the outskirts of town that led them back to the high school campus, where they were met by a jubilant welcome party.

“Tears were pouring down our faces when we pulled into the school parking lot and saw the entire student body, teachers, school board members and parents all standing out in front of school with a huge banner every student signed,” wrote Butcher. “It took us all by surprise and made us really proud of our accomplishment.”

It was also around then that they learned they’d be playing for the section title on their home court.

‘An unbelievable day’

Falling asleep was nearly impossible for the Wildcats on the night of Nov. 3, the day before the section title game.

“I was just imagining myself playing,” Barrera said, ”and then I looked over and saw that it was 4 a.m.”

The Wildcats said they moved through the hours leading up to the game in a daze, just waiting to get pinched and awakened from the dream.

“That was an unbelievable day,” Infante said.

After school, they went to the watch the boys soccer team’s playoff game in Windsor, but they still couldn’t keep from counting down the hours until their own game.

Butcher attempted to calm some of those jitters in the locker room before the game. She laid out that no matter what happened, she was proud of them and felt fortunate to be their coach. She had even decorated the locker room with ribbons and a big poster.

The gravity of their situation only increased when they emerged from the locker room to find that there was not an empty seat in Calistoga’s 750-seat main gym.

“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing. This is actually happening right now,’” Quiepo said.

It was only when the game started that their nerves began to settle.

They won a narrow first set, 25-20, but then dropped the second 18-25. The Wildcats were in a dogfight. But they hadn’t come this far just to come up short.

Like they had against Fremont Christian and St. Bernard’s, they dug deep and won the next two sets to finalize their incredible and improbable run to the NCS title.

“When the girl hit the ball into the net,” Barrera said of the last point, “you could just feel the energy and everyone yell with happiness at the same time.”

“People in the crowd were even hugging,” Infante chipped in.

The Wildcats embraced on the court in a frenzy of emotions. Smiles were plastered on their faces. Tears streamed down their cheeks.

It was a moment they said will stick with them for the rest of their lives.

“It was just happiness,” Infante said. “It was an unforgettable feeling.”

A lasting legacy

More than eight months later, there’s still a level of incredulity the Wildcats have when they talk about last fall.

“It’s kind of shocking and unbelievable,” Infante said.

Reflecting on it as they downed MOD Pizza pies in Napa on Wednesday, Infante, Barrera and Quiepo recalled countless memories from their historic run. They recounted how little confidence they had at the start of the year, how they began to trust each other as teammates, how they eventually turned things around. They talked about the hours and hours of time spent in the gym and the car rides and hotel stays that helped them grow closer as teammates.

Above all else, they remember winning.

“It’s history,” Infante said. “I feel like people will always be talking about it, like this was the first girls team to win it all. … I can tell my kids and they can tell their kids. I mean we made history. Not everyone does that.”

After their season came to an end in their NorCal playoff opener at Redding Christian, Butcher gave her players wallet-sized photos of their team celebrating after they won the title. Infante displays hers in her phone case. Barrera keeps hers in her wallet.

They’re small tokens that will help remind the Wildcats not just what they accomplished, but also what they’re capable of achieving.

The banner hanging in Calistoga’s gym will do the same, not just for the 2018 Wildcats but for future generations as well.

Several of the Wildcats help coach youth girls basketball teams in town, and some of their younger players were on hand to watch the title game.

“I feel like that made a lot of them want to play volleyball,” Barrera said. “A lot of the girls are scared, but they see that if you work hard and play hard that you can have this moment with your team, too. So I think it was an eye-opening thing for some of the smaller girls.”

For as much as they want to remember and savor what many consider the best moment of their lives so far, they realize it’s also something they must put behind them moving into this upcoming fall. With not a single senior on last year’s team, they’ll get back nearly everyone for the 2019 season.

Normally the hunters instead of the hunted, the Wildcats will have new challenges this season. Because of their success, they are moving up into the more competitive NCL II and facing schools such as St. Vincent, Credo, Technology and Sonoma Academy.

“We have to act like nothing happened last year because that’s a completely different team,” Infante said. “So we have to keep working hard just to get that much better.”

It’d be hard to imagine a better season than the one they’re coming off of, but it wouldn’t be the first time they’d have exceeded expectations.

“Winning the section title was a dream come true for the whole team,” wrote Butcher. “We felt so proud of the accomplishment. Winning for the school and community after all their support felt amazing. Knowing we made Calistoga High School history as the first female team sport to ever win a banner was absolutely incredible.

“It’s a true honor to be able to bring a championship banner to the school and town of Calistoga.”

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Sports Reporter

Gus Morris covers St. Helena and Calistoga sports for the Napa Valley Register. Before joining the Register in 2018, he covered collegiate sports for the student publication at the University of Oregon.