VISALIA — The recipe for a championship was there for Sierra Pacific. Get ahead early, seize the momentum, carry it over and finish — but everything unhinged on two points.
The 3-seed Golden Bears did three of those four things during Saturday’s CIF Central Section Division V girls volleyball championship against 1-seed California City. Unfortunately, they couldn’t finish — and it wasn’t by much. It came down to two points to be exact.
Trailing 22-18 in the second set, Sierra Pacific went on a 3-0 run to slice the lead to one. A couple rallies followed and the two teams found themselves deadlocked at 24.
Having already won the first set and tied the second set with a late surge, the momentum was all on Sierra Pacific’s side.
And in the blink of an eye, it wasn’t.
California City made a crucial block to take the 25-24 lead. Sierra Pacific needed the next point to stay alive, but couldn’t dig out a kill and dropped the second set.
“That second set was heartbreaking,” Contreras said. “Our errors, lots of serving mistakes, not finding the court, and so, essentially our errors is what lost us that game.”
Suddenly, things changed. California City had more confidence in their play, star player Chloe Emory, who sprained her left ankle in the first set, was getting stronger with every rally and Sierra Pacific was starting to make some mistakes.
“The momentum can swing either way and it comes down to two points,” Sierra Pacific coach Vonnie Contreras said. “The momentum swung away from us and we lost that one. Following that, it was just kind of a tough recovery trying to find that fight, trying to find the spirit.”
Sierra Pacific wasn’t the same team after those two points and ultimately lost 3-1 (25-21, 24-26, 23-25, 14-25) at College of the Sequoias. The wild second set featured 15 ties and four lead changes.
“I honestly thought we were going to win that set, and I know my girls did too,” senior libero Ashlyn Martinez said. “We really wanted it, I know we did, but we just dropped really quick.”
Not all was lost immediately. The team still competed in the third set and tied it at 6-all on a 3-0 run. From there, neither team trailed by more than two until the Ravens went on a 5-1 run to take a 19-16 lead. They stretched their lead to 22-17 and Sierra Pacific needed a timeout.
The Golden Bears came out of the timeout unable to close the gap and faced match point with the score at 24-19. They caught fire and Sierra Pacific captain Hailey Leslie made back-to-back plays with a kill and then a block. Two more points followed and it was 24-23.
One more point for Sierra Pacific and they would force California City to win by two, a point for California City and they’d take a 2-1 lead in the match.
But the comeback didn’t happen as Sierra Pacific was called for a double hit and lost another close set. It was finally too much and they were unable to hold their own.
In the fourth set, California City took a 7-4 lead and used a 7-0 run to increase its lead to 10. After the run, Sierra Pacific could get no closer than nine points.
When things were going right, the team was communicating and covering the court effectively. Olivia Fagundes got the match started with a kill and 1-0 lead. The teams battled and Sierra Pacific trailed most of the first set before Leslie made a block to give her team an 18-17 lead — their first lead of the match.
“Communication was really big and running our fast sets and putting the ball down is really what helped us get that win,” Leslie said.
California City regained the lead with a 4-1 run to make it 21-19. Sierra Pacific was unfazed by the adversity and went on a furious 6-0 run, including a Leslie block on set point, to swipe the first set.
Things looked good for Sierra Pacific until they didn’t. But Contreras chose to look at the positives instead of wallowing in the negative.
“We’re a young team so gaining these experiences is really important for the future of this program,” Contreras said. “It’s not a complete loss.”
A year after not even making the playoffs, Sierra Pacific finished as runner-up in the tournament.
It was also the first time they had ever played for a Central Section title.
Since they finished as runner-up in the championships, Sierra Pacific qualifies for the state tournament. The brackets were released on Sunday and they earned the 13-seed so they will face 4-seed Carnegie Schools-Riverside. The road match is set for Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“It’s an amazing feeling. These girls really did a lot this year,” Contreras said. “We have a very young program and the future is bright, so keep looking to Sierra Pacific.”