The Gavilan players celebrate in a NorCal Regional playoff match against Feather River. Photo by Chris Mora.
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The Gavilan College women’s volleyball team found itself in an unfamiliar position in last Saturday’s California Community College Athletic Association NorCal Regional playoff match. With a state tournament berth on the line, the Rams found themselves down two sets to one. The Rams were facing a confident Feather River team that had no fear and was seemingly on its way to scoring the upset. 

It didn’t happen. Armed with an opportunity to show a champion’s heart, Gavilan did just that, rallying back to take the last two sets to advance to the State Championship Tournament for the second time in the last three years—the only times in program history the Rams have advanced to this stage. Game scores were 27-29, 25-15, 29-31, 25-18, 15-11. 

When the Golden Eagles committed a hitting error to end the match, the Gavilan players erupted in jubilation. 

“On match point, oh man, that feeling, I just wanted to lay on the ground because I was so tired,” said Florence Tukuaoga, who finished with a team-high 14 kills and 5 ½ blocks. “I’m going to sleep after this.”

One couldn’t blame Tukuagoa for being exhausted. The thrilling match lasted 2 hours, 15 minutes, leaving some players in tears afterward. One of them was Lex Chavarria, the seemingly indefatigable three-sport standout. In addition to indoor volleyball, the standout sophomore plays two other sports—beach volleyball and softball—in the same spring sports season. 

“We’ve been working so hard for this, so it’s nice to come together and get it done,” the former San Benito High standout said. “We feel so together now, and we’re ready for any team we play at state.” 

Gavilan (29-1), the No. 1 seed from the North, plays Cypress (19-8), the No. 4 seed from the South, in the opening round of the State Championship Tournament on Friday at 7 p.m. at Solano College in Fairfield. The eight-team, single-elimination tournament runs through Sunday. 

A determined Gavilan team refused to lose and see its season come to a premature end. Despite losing two ultra-competitive games—ones that could’ve easily gone the Rams’ way—Gavilan responded when the stakes were highest. It wasn’t easy. After all, the Rams were playing in just their second five-set match of the season. 

Their one loss came to Cabrillo in three games and they defeated Sierra in five games all the way back on Sept. 5, the tail end of the first week of the season. Trailing 6-4 in Game 5, Gavilan received a kill from Chavarria, whose younger sister, Noel, was then inserted into the match for the first time. 

All Noel Chavarria did was serve the next five points to put the Rams up 9-6. On the next point, Noel Chavarria made an incredible one-fisted, highlight-reel dig. However, Feather River won the point to cut its deficit to 9-7. Noel Chavarria was then subbed out, and like clockwork Lex Chavarria came up huge, delivering one of her eight kills to make it 10-7. 

On the next point, Lex Chavarria and Evelyn Clonts combined for a stuff block, which was followed by a Feather River hitting error to give the Rams a 12-8 lead. A Katia Dizon kill made it 13-8, and at that point the Rams were poised to win the match. Dizon produced another kill—two of her three kills came in the final eight points of the match—sealing the outcome. 

Dizon didn’t see much action in the first three sets, but the coaching staff put the former Anzar High standout into the match for a portion of the final two sets, and the move paid off in a big way. That decision, coupled with inserting Noel Chavarria in Game 5—in one of the most pivotal stretches of the match, no less—means the Gavilan coaching staff was on point. 

Coach Kevin Kramer and his assistants also made a crucial adjustment by putting Tukuaoga on Feather River outside hitter Chloe Hampton, who was absolutely unstoppable in the first set, recording eight kills on nine attacks. Tukuaoga had a couple of stuff blocks on Hampton, altering the trajectory of the match. Feather River adjusted and brought Hampton’s attacks through the middle off the net, and even though Hampton recorded her fair share of kills, Tukuaoga’s effectiveness at the net spearheaded Gavilan’s 25-15 Game 2 win. Tukuaoga was downright ecstatic when asked about her blocking prowess. 

“We needed help at that point, and that is the first time I actually blocked liked that (for an entire match),” she said. “It was like, ‘How did I do that?’ I have to give props to my coaches because they told me to line up on her (Hampton) hitting arm, so that is what I was doing the whole time. I wasn’t concentrating on the ball; I was focused on her hitting arm.”

The Rams found themselves tied at 15-15 in Game 4, their season on the line. However, Gavilan closed the set strong, starting with a Clonts kill that preceded a Feather River hitting error to give the Rams a 17-15 lead they would never relinquish. Gavilan closed the set on a 10-3 run, capped by a Camille Finely block and kill. That set up Game 5, and the Rams won the critical points—something they failed to do in Games 1 and 3—to cap a tremendous comeback. Games 1 and 3 featured a total of 24 ties and 25 lead changes, with the teams exchanging points in furious and often dramatic fashion.

“Kevin kind of told us at the beginning we would be our own opponent and we could be the one to defeat ourselves,” Lex Chavarria said. “We had to fight through it, but it was really hard to pull ourselves out of it. But I think we did a really good job of not letting the two sets to one down get to us. We kind of pushed through and treated Games 4 and 5 like they were normal games.”

Charlotte Cannizzaro was hot early, recording six of her 10 kills. Libero Mikeila Banda was superb defensively yet again, finishing with 27 digs. Clonts had 10 kills, Finley finished with seven kills and 4 ½ blocks and Teresa Ochoa was second on the team with 13 kills, often coming up with points at crucial moments. Ochoa and Dizon had a team-best three aces each. Lex Chavarria expressed tremendous pride in Noel Chavarria coming up huge in the final set. 

“I’m so proud of my sister and everything that she has accomplished and will continue to accomplish,” Lex said. “I’m so grateful we’re playing on the same court again.”

Tukuaoga also had a tremendous feeling of pride when talking about her teammates and family. 

“When I’m playing, I think of my family and doing good for them,” she said. “I think of this team and how we were able to work together to go to state. We kept pumping each other up to get that win.”

Tukuaoga prepped at South San Francisco High and was originally headed to Holy Names College in Oakland before finding her way to Gavilan. 

“It was a big change coming from South City to the country side,” she said. “It’s a lot slower and quieter out here, but it’s not that bad. Especially when you get to play on a volleyball team like this.”

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Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.


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