HANFORD — Ashlan VanGronigen’s kill sent the Golden Bears into celebration mode as they cruised through the first round of the CIF Central Section Division IV playoffs with a 3-0 victory over the Cougars.
“My coach told me at the end to ace it to the one spot and then I ended it by doing that, so that made me really happy,” VanGronigen, who finished with four kills, four aces and one block, said.
It was just one of many converted opportunities for the top-seeded Golden Bears at home on Thursday night.
Fresh off their East Sequoia League title and best regular season in school history, Sierra Pacific (31-6, 12-0 ESL) was solid on both sides of the ball and picked apart 16-seed McFarland (14-17-2, 5-7 SSL) in less than 90 minutes. The Golden Bears won 25-10, 25-11, 25-18.
“We’ve been pushing for growth and controlling our side of the court and I think they did that tonight, especially in the first two sets,” Sierra Pacific coach Julie Coelho said. “It’s nice to get the nerves out.”
Leading 11-7 in the first set, the Golden Bears took control by going on a 10-0 run. Accurate passes and good communication allowed Sierra Pacific to poke holes in McFarland’s defense. Haleigh Fagundes’ kill capped the run and gave the Golden Bears a 21-7 lead, which all but wrapped up the set.
“I think we were connecting with our fast sets and communicating where the ball needs to be and put down and finish it through,” Sierra Pacific’s Amie Walker said.
The second set was better than the first with the Golden Bears jumping out to a 7-0 lead. Separate 4-0 and 5-0 runs allowed them to take a 19-9 lead.
“It starts with a pass and I think we were able to work together to get a good pass in there,” VanGronigen said.
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Their defense sparked their offense and excellent sets by Walker allowed her outside hitters room to operate. Walker said she looked for teammates who were able to put the ball down and finish their shots. She finished tied for a team-high nine digs with Madalyn Lemos.
The Golden Bears ended the second set with a 4-0 run and on a kill by VanGronigen to take a 2-0 lead.
“It’s all about our passing,” Coelho said. “If our passing is on, everything else follows. We have a big roster, a big team so we know our passing is really important to setting the pace for our offense.”
The third set proved to be more of the same for the Golden Bears. They led early, went on a couple of runs and finished the match. The Cougars were able to go on a 4-0 run — the biggest run the Golden Bears allowed all night — but they quickly regained their composure.
The Golden Bears went on an 8-1 run to take a 17-13 lead and followed it up with a 5-0 run to lead 23-17 before advancing to the quarterfinals. It's the third straight season the Golden Bears have advanced to at least the second round.
“I’m really happy because we started really slow this whole season,” VanGronigen said. “I’m really happy to be able to be a freshman and to be able to be a part of it.”
Sierra Pacific extends its winning streak to nine matches and hasn’t dropped a single set since Sept. 23 in a loss against Dinuba. They’ve won 27 sets in a row.
Sierra Pacific will host No. 8 seed California City (22-12-1, 8-4 HDL) next Tuesday at 7 p.m. The two teams are familiar with one another as they’ve met up in the postseason the last two years. The Ravens defeated No. 9 seed Bishop Union 3-1 to advance.
“With each game we need growth, each game we’re going to be challenged more and more by the opponent,” Coelho said. “We know the seed is irrelevant to how we show up. Each game we have to show up, we have to bring it, we have to play our best.”s