Christopher High had one of those nights where things went slightly askew of normal. Unfortunately, it came in the first round of the Central Coast Section Division III playoffs.
A gritty effort by the seventh-seeded Cougars nearly led to a winner-take-all fifth set, but visiting Saratoga (No. 10-ssed) clamped down on the match when it needed to, advancing through to the second round with a 25-19, 17-25, 25-15, 25-22 victory Wednesday night in Gilroy.
“That’s the hard part. We were so close,” senior setter Alex Gerberick said.
Grasping for the fading strings of its playoff life, CHS, already down two sets to one, rallied from an 18-13 deficit in the fourth set to tie it at 21-21. It was a run that had been missing since early in the match. However, the Falcons owned four out of the five next points to stave off the comeback.
“We thought we had it,” senior Katie Wheat said. “We definitely wanted that.”
The Cougars’ cohesiveness that had carried them to the Monterey Bay League Pacific Division championship – the program’s first – wasn’t in its truest form Wednesday night. CHS relinquished a 16-13 advantage in the first set, allowing the Falcons to swoop in for the Game 1 win with a 12-3 run to the finish.
“Our serve-receive wasn’t the strongest tonight. We weren’t able to run the plays we had been running all season. When we get in system, we are very hard to stop. Credit to them, they served tough,” CHS head coach Brian Calimpong said. “They kept us out of system.”
Saratoga placed 11 service aces and made matters more difficult with consistent offensive attacks from its three key hitters – Adriana Ivanko, Julia Lee and Tivoli Sisco.
“They had really intelligent hitters,” Calimpong said. “They weren’t the biggest front row in the world, but they swing with a high IQ.”
Wheat, along with Olivia Tabron and Joy Kirkwood on the front row propelled the Cougars in Game 2. Kirkwood set the tone early in the set with a big block for a point that seemed to energize the Cougars and the enthusiastic crowd on hand. Tabron added two blocks and two kills, Hanna Tabron had her most productive set with four kills and Wheat had a kill and a block as the Cougars led by as many as 10 points.
“I thought we had some momentum there,” Calimpong added.
The Falcons (18-15 overall) extinguished that spark in Game 3, turning an 11-11 tie midway through into a runaway set victory. A 7-0 run at the 11-all juncture crept Saratoga to 20-11. Olivia Tabron countered with two kills and a block for three of the next four points, but the Cougars moved no closer than within seven points.
The fourth-set rally had the hometown fans thinking fifth set, but that thought, along with the season, faded with the final Saratoga ace.
“They adjusted,” Calimpong said. “Sometimes it’s just the way the chips fall. They happened to be the better team tonight. But I’m extremely proud of the girls. I felt like we came in as prepared as we possibly could. They fight as a team, they fight hard and they never give up. They started at the beginning of summer and they have been nonstop since. This season is a testament to their hard work. And nobody can take that banner away from them.”
The Cougars conclude the year with an 19-14 overall record – including a 11-1 mark in MBL play. The 19 victories are a program best. But that league championship banner, which will soon hang high above the gym floor, will be what the Cougars will cherish most.
“We set out goals at the beginning of the season and getting that banner was one of them,” Gerberick said.