ST. HELENA – As the gym cleared, Napa head volleyball coach Kelly Van Winden had one Saints player after another approach and hug her.

Even though they had been on the wrong end of a 3-0 loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday night, the first meeting between the cross-valley schools since 2005, the Saints had nothing but good feelings towards Napa.

As one of the founders of the Evolve Volleyball program in Napa, Van Winden has coached a number of St. Helena’s players over the years, and even had first-year Saints head coach Jessica McCornack on staff during her time coaching at Napa Valley College.

All those local connections, and the fact that it had been over a decade since the two schools had last faced each other, made the decision to add the Saints to their preseason schedule an easy one for Van Winden and the Grizzlies.

“There are a lot of kids that have come our way with little clinics and what not, so I thought this would be so fun to see them, to see the kids,” Van Winden said. “Like, why aren’t we going to support them? And because we play on the same nights, I don’t get to see them play. So it was fun. Even though I was stone-faced during the match, I have joy for them, absolutely.”

Even though it was Napa who took the match in straight sets, 25-14, 26-24, 25-7, to move to 1-2 on the season, neither team looked at the preseason meeting as anything more than chance to play familiar faces, especially since the chances to support one another during the season are few and far between.

“That’s why we did it,” Van Winden said. “We said, ‘Let’s go play kids we know.’”

For McCornack, the chance to play a larger school like Napa in the preseason was one she couldn’t pass up. As she begins her first season on the sidelines leading the Saints, she’s trying to challenge her team this preseason as she looks to build the program how she sees fit.

“It’s exciting to play another team in the valley where we know the coaches and other girls on the team, and compete with bigger teams,” she said.

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She also knows better results will come as the season progresses. The Saints are talented but are still learning how to play with each other, not uncommon territory this early in the year. Wednesday’s loss dropped them to 1-2 on the year as they headed to face American Canyon on Thursday night.

On Wednesday, though, they hung tough with Napa, a school with over four times the number of students.

The Grizzlies started out hot and took the first set 25-14 but did so by scoring the last six points of the frame after St. Helena had rallied to make the score 19-14 after trailing 11-3 early on.

The second set held more of the same back-and-forth play.

The Saints lead from the onset, scoring the first five points of the frame and held a 10-5 lead before Napa rallied back to even the score at 15-15. The Saints pulled away again, going up 22-16, and seemed in prime position to close things out. But the Grizzlies never relented, marching all the way back to tie the game at 23-23.

A St. Helena time out got the crowd energized, sensing an exciting finish to the set. They got exactly that, as the final points played in long, drawn-out rallies. But in the end, after a 30-second rally, Napa took it, 26-24.

The Grizzlies, fueled by the exciting comeback, had all the momentum going into the third set, which they won 25-7.

Sweep or not, Van Winden had nothing but good things to say about the Saints.

“They played hard,” she said, “and they played hard on every single ball.”

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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.