OAKLAND, Calif. – One of these days those who seed the CIF North Region Division III girls playoff teams will figure it out.
That or they’ll just talk with second-year Bishop O’Dowd coach Mike Gee.
“Sacred Heart Cathedral owns the NorCal Division III division,” he said after his talented and top-seeded squad put up more than a good fight but just couldn’t shake the visiting Irish, who posted an exciting and determined 25-20, 23-25, 25-21, 25-23 Tuesday night in the title match. “They just aren’t willing to give it up.”
For the last three years the Irish have entered the bracket as the Central Coast Section champs but with less than sparkling records: 29-10, 31-9 and 27-11, respectively.
The committee has naturally assumed they were flawed somehow, failing to take into account they play in one of the country’s toughest leagues, featuring current national No. 1 Mitty and St. Francis, teams that have combined to win 14 state crowns, or that the Irish are more battle-tested than steel wool.
For the third straight year, as a second- or third-seed, they mowed down three straight NorCal opponents, the last one on the road, this time getting a career-high 25 kills from third-year starter Tammy Yap, 49 assists from first-year setter MacKenzie Murtagh and 14 kills by high-flying 5-8 outside hitter Colleen Conefrey en route to their third consecutive title and fourth in five years.
Now they seek their first state crown and to exact revenge on Southern California champion and defending champion Cathedral Catholic (30-7), a three-game winner over Cerritos, 2 p.m. Saturday at the Bren Center on the campus of UC Irvine.
Cathedral Catholic defeated the Irish in four games during last year’s final. That should only spur Sacred Heart Cathedral, which was swept by O’Dowd at home the first two weeks of this season. Yap and Murtagh were each injured during that match. Yap, in fact, played libero that match while nursing a bum shoulder.
All patched up and pieces in place, the Irish looked like a completely different team on Tuesday.
“They just don’t get rattled,” Gee said. “They’re always in control.”
Said Sacred Heart Cathedral coach Margi Beima: “They just kept their heads. In every situation they held it together and handled it all. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Before an absolutely jammed crowd of perhaps a 1,000 in O’Dowd’s legendary, uniquely-configured bandbox of a gym, the Irish (30-11) overcame the all-around play of remarkable 6-2 junior setter/opposite side hitter Lindsey Parrott, who had 23 assists and 15 kills.
O’Dowd (37-9) also got strong play from another big-time Division I talent, 6-2 junior outside Alexandra Lynch (21 kills), standout libero Rachel Stier (18 digs), along with combined 20 kills by 5-11 Monique Holt, 6-3 middle Monique Holt and opposite hitter Catherine Huntington.
But even with all that offense, the Irish responded to every challenge, using their less spectacular but varied offensive weapons along with steady defense and serving to pull out games three and four late.
The deep and experienced Irish, who Beima called the best offensive team she’s had during this championship run, also got big contributions from defensive specialists Nikki Chan and Michaelyn Miyagishima, middle blocker Maritza Sazo, senior middle Lisa Hipp and opposite hitters Kelly Ostello and Jaclyn Mack, and libero Cynthia Yim.
But the 5-10 Yap, who broke her career mark of 22 kills set in the state finals last year, really keyed everything, who despite giving up four and five inches to taller blockers, recorded kills from all different spots to all different angles.
“We stay calm when it matters most,” said Yap, who wasn’t very calm while celebrating the victory. “This feels so awesome. Three in a row. … that’s hard to describe. The third time is the charm. We’re going down (to Irvine) to win that first one.”
The development Conefrey has been key all season. When Yap went down for a month early, she needed to pick up the offensive attack which she has done all season.
On Tuesday, she delivered numerous ferocious key kills over much taller defenders.
“We knew (O’Dowd) was a great team but we knew more what to expect,” Conefrey said. “We’re so not one person on this team but all six players on the court coming at you at once.”
The development of Murtagh, a big distributor at 6-feet, has been vital. She played opposite last year but despite missing a month with a knee injury early in the season has helped keep the Irish together.
“We just all stepped up – tonight, the entire season, every practice,” Murtagh said. “We just play point-by-point and that just leads to winning.”
An impressive seven-point service run – the only extended one by either team – by O’Dowd setter Sarah Knox (20 assists) led O’Dowd to the second –game victory. Four of the points were via aces as following a sideout kill from Lynch, the Dragons went from down 13-8 to up 16-13.
Though the Irish eventually caught up, tying the game 23-23 on two kills by Ostello and one from Conefrey, but the Dragons closed it out on kills by Lynch and Jordan Pehanick, another 6-1 junior.
“We took the momentum for a little bit there,” Parrott said. “But they just seemed to have a little more energy. Sometimes playing on the road gives you that extra boost.”
Murtagh provided it in the fourth after the Dragons fought back from a 14-8 deficit thanks to six straight points – five coming on serves by Molly Kennedy (two aces) to tie it at 14-14. But following a timeout and service error,
Murtagh served for four straight, one coming on an ace, two kills from Yap and a big block-winner from Hipp. O’Dowd never got within three the rest of the game that was finished off with kills from Conefrey and Yap.
“They just seem to know exactly where to hit the ball,” Parrott said.
In the fifth, play see-sawed until a four-point flurry keyed by two big kills and block-winner from Ostello, put the Irish up 19-16, a lead Sacred Heart Cathedral would never relinquish. O’Dowd closed to within one four times and eventually tied at 23-23 on an ace by Megan Kehoe.
But Conefrey ripped home a kill and Miyagishima closed it out with an ace to send the Irish back to state.
“We were patient and we were determined,” Beima said. “We don’t have a bunch of superstars but we have girls who dig deep. They had to dig deep tonight.”
SoCal: Cathedral Catholic d. Cerritos 25-20, 30-28, 25-14
NoCal: Salinas d. Oak Ridge 22-25, 25-22, 25-17, 28-26
SoCal: Newport Harbor d. Dos Pueblos 23-25, 25-16, 25-20, 18-25, 15-10
NoCal: Mitty d. St. Francis-Sacramento 25-20, 25-12, 19-25, 25-15
The nation’s No. 1 team had a hiccup in the fourth game, but showed no sign of panic while recording its 12th Northern California championship and seventh in a row. The Monarchs (39-0) now face Redlands East Valley in a rematch of last year’s state title match 5 p.m. Saturday at UC Irvine.
The last time Mitty dropped a game was Halloween – an entire month – but it recovered behind the play of Rachel Williams (18 kills, 15 digs), Kristina Graven (12 kills), Joan Caloiaro (eight kills, 41 assists, 14 digs), Ryan Shaffer (25 digs) and Shannon Fleming (11 kills).
A pair of fantastic digs by defensive specialist Ronni Lewis keyed the deciding fourth-game victory.
St. Francis (39-7) is the sixth team all season to pull off a game against the Monarchs, who have lost just seven games all year. The Troubadours received a big match from UCLA-bound Zoe Nightingale, who finished with 10 kills, 22 digs and seven blocks.
Mitty, the defending champion, goes after its seventh state title. Last year the Monarchs defeated Redlands East Valley 25-21, 25-23, 25-21.
SoCal: Redlands East Valley d. Corona del Mar 25-18, 25-21, 25-22.
NorCal: Christian Brothers d. Ripon 25-21, 25-20, 20-13
Behind the play of 6-3 Santa Clara-bound middle Megan Anders (eight kills, three blocks) and Erica Cuevas and Katie Hoekman, host and top seed and defending champion Christian Brothers-Sacramento (30-9) breezed to victory over Ripon (39-11).
SoCal: La Costa Canyton d. Bishop School 25-17, 18-25, 25-22, 25-15
Branson-Ross d. Mt. Madonna-Watsonville 25-21, 25-23, 22-25, 23-25, 15-10
The girls and boys basketball teams from Branson-Ross have each tasted multiple trips to the state championships.
However, for the girls volleyball program, the Bulls will make their first appearance Saturday after outlasting 2007 state champion Mt. Madonna in a five-game thriller before 500 fans at College of Marin in Kentfield.
The Bulls reached the title match after winning their first-ever NCS title, then beating East Nicolaus-Nicolaus and defending state champion Castilleja-Palo Alto in the first two rounds of the NorCals.
Branson, 34-5, who had only lost one game all season to a D-V squad, looked like they would run the Hawks girls out of the gym after winning the first two games and leading 19-11 in game three.
Mt. Madonna, 28-7, would not fold and outscored Branson 14-3 to win the third game.
Although the hosts lost game four, they regrouped after trailing 18-9 and regained their stride going into the deciding fifth game.
"I could feel we started to get our momentum and confidence back near the end of game four. We knew at that point it came down to one game," said Branson 6-foot-1 junior outside hitter Alex Schoenberger, who had a monster match with 20 kills, six blocks, 31 digs and one ace.
“I told the girls everything that has happened before this is obsolete. It's down to one 15-point game," Branson Coach Michelle Brazil said about what she told her team entering the fifth game.
Sophomore Kathleen Wallace added 17 kills, three aces and 20 digs. Four of her kills came in the fifth game.
Senior 6-3 middle blocker Kristy Wentzel chipped in with 13 kills, five blocks and three aces. Her sophomore sister Meghan Wentzel recorded 50 assists.
Senior Libero and defensive specialist Molly Landers had 36 digs and served an ace on match point.
Branson now faces Tri-City Christian-Vista, a 3-0 winner over Mission Prep-San Luis Obispo, in Saturday’s 10 a.m. match at UC Irvine.
SoCal: Tri-City Christian d. Mission Prep 25-19, 26-24, 26-24