Christopher starts fast, finishes strong

The Cougars' Kennedy Bretz and Sydney Ogden look to make the block in Tuesday's CIF NorCal Division III playoff match. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Midway through Game 3, Sara Krueger displayed all of her immense skills in a seven-second snapshot. With Tuesday’s CIF NorCal playoff match leveled at one game apiece, the Christopher High junior middle blocker proved instrumental once again. On the third contact of the rally midway through Game 3, Krueger delivered a block. San Joaquin Memorial dug it up and was able to get in position for another attack, which Krueger promptly blocked again.

This time, the Panthers’ only recourse was to pop the ball up over the net, which Krueger immediately pounced on for the kill. That gave the Cougars a 14-11 lead in Game 3 and was part of a 6-1 run that the Cougars rode to a Game 3 victory. One game later, they closed things out to earn the first NorCal win in program history. Game scores were 25-16, 22-25, 25-19, 25-20. The No. 5 seed Cougars (26-2) advance to a Division III second-round matchup against a familiar foe in No. 4 seed Hillsdale of San Mateo, a team the Cougars beat just six days ago in a riveting five-set Central Coast Section semifinal.

“We’ll probably want to come out stronger this time,” said Krueger, referring to the fact the team dropped Game 1 against Hillsdale. “Looking back on the videos, we fought really hard in that game and we all showed up big time.”

Indeed, ever since Christopher received a shock when it lost Game 1 to Wilcox in the opening round of the CCS playoffs, its players have played loose and free en route to the NorCal stage. They simply needed to get some CCS experience before reaching their peak performance.

“Playing in CCS helped us to see how much pressure there is, and now we’re used to that pressure so we can play better,” Krueger said. “I want this to keep going because I love the team we have. We have eight seniors and I don’t want them to lose.”

Despite beating Hillsdale last week, the Fighting Knights were seeded ahead of the Cougars and thus will be playing at home on Thursday in San Mateo. Whatever happens from here, it’s all icing on the cake for Christopher, which ran the table to win the Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division championship before reaching the CCS Division II title match against Aragon High of San Mateo.

Tuesday’s match against San Joaquin Memorial started off well, with Christopher easily taking Game 1, 25-16. However, the Panthers found a rhythm in Game 2, and combine that with some shoddy Christopher passing, won the second set to level the match at one game apiece. That’s when the Cougars went to work, as San Joaquin Memorial had no answer for the 6-foot Krueger, who has verbally committed to play at San Diego State.

Krueger had six blocks and three kills in Game 3, Allison Duross had five kills in the frame and Maya Tabron four kills as the Panthers could only do so much against Christopher’s offensive firepower.  The visitors proved to be a competitive foe, as Game 3 featured six ties and seven lead changes and Game 4 featured seven ties and eight lead changes. Krueger started Game 4 with a block, setting the tone for the final set.

Duross was her usual solid self, producing double-digit kills with a high hitting percentage. Kennedy Bretz had another fine all-around game, and Madison Hammer had a couple of service aces at key moments in the match, none bigger than the one to put the team up 17-16 in Game 4, a lead Christopher would not relinquish. Krueger praised the presence of defensive specialist Serena Li in Game 3. The Cougars had just dropped the second set, and Krueger said something was a bit off.

“We always have at least one person who can bring everything back in, and tonight that was Serena Li,” Krueger said. “I think she brought us all back together and we started pushing ourselves. That is how we won the match, with good energy. That’s how it’s been like for most of the season.”

Krueger powers the team with her presence at the net. Few players in the CCS produce more blocks or touches on the ball than Krueger, who has good height at 6-foot, but is certainly not the tallest middle out there. Like any outstanding middle, Krueger keys in on body language and angles to read the block and make adjustments on the fly.

“I do my best to read the player and the angle of their arm,” she said. “If the ball is tight (to the net), I know exactly where they’re going to hit it. Usually you can tell everything by someone’s arm swing, so I just get in front of their body and it usually works out from there.”

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