When the ball hit the floor on the Sonora side of the court in the third and deciding set of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 volleyball championship match, the celebration was on.
Leaping for joy, the Lady Cougar players on the court Saturday afternoon, Nov. 6 at Ripon High School were soon mobbed by their teammates, joined by their coaches and cheered on by a large group of Escalon faithful in the stands.
It was a back-to-back Section title run for the varsity volleyball girls; they won the blue banner in 2019 and this was their first opportunity to defend it, having no playoffs during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Escalon swept Sonora out of the Ripon gym, 25-14, 25-22 and 25-10, in this year’s final.
The 2019 team was the first to win a Section volleyball championship; now Escalon is a two-time blue banner winner.
“It feels amazing, especially having my two captains, they’re the only ones on this team that had that experience, and I felt like they led this team offensively, defensively and mentally,” head coach Teresa Williamson said, pointing to the leadership of senior Mandy Murphy and junior Emily Vickers as crucial during the regular season and postseason run.
They were on the 2019 Section championship squad, Murphy as a sophomore and Vickers as a freshman.
This year’s championship match was hosted at Ripon High School, scene of the 2019 Section win for the Lady Cougars, and a court they are familiar with, having battled Ripon many times in Trans-Valley League play.
Escalon was undefeated in TVL action this year, claiming the league championship with a 10-0 record. They continued the strong run in the D4 playoffs, first with an opening round 3-0 win over No. 16 Marysville on Oct. 26. They followed that up with a 3-0 win over No. 8 Dixon on Oct. 28 and then defeated No. 4 seed Western Sierra Collegiate Academy on Tuesday, Nov. 2 by a 25-11, 25-10, 25-11 final. That put them back into the championship game on Nov. 6.
Sonora, the No. 2 seed, handled business on their side of the bracket with wins against No. 15 Venture Academy, 3-0; No. 10 Liberty Ranch, 3-0; and a semifinal 3-0 win over No. 3 Ripon.
In introducing the teams on Saturday, the PA announcer noted that 170 teams started play at the beginning of the season in the division; Sonora and Escalon were the only two remaining. Sonora had gone 22-1 prior to the championship round on Saturday; Escalon came in at 28-2.
Both qualified to move on to NorCals, regardless of the Saturday outcome.
Junior Rylie Lattig started the first set with a strong serve, Escalon rolling to a 6-0 advantage before Sonora was able to get a point. Leads of 9-3 and 14-6 were enjoyed by the Lady Cougars as they stayed focused on the court and never let Sonora get on much of a run. A well timed block by Bella Cormack got the game to a 23-12 Escalon advantage and from there, a couple of points were exchanged before Escalon took the 25-14 win in set one.
After trading points to start the second set, Sonora went on a strong service run, leading 6-1 before Williamson called a time out.
“We talked about them kind of taking a step back, playing to a level that we have played at and not that which we have seen,” Williamson said of what advice she gave her team in the huddle. “We can’t play at that level, we have to constantly play at our level; they stepped up and played a solid game.”
Though Sonora, still on the serve, got the next point to go up 7-1, it was another Cormack block that brought the ball back over to the Escalon side with the Lady Cougars down 2-7.
But from there, they chipped away, closing to within 7-9 before another Sonora service run.
A kill by Leah Wheeler and some strong serves by Emily Middleton saw the Escalon girls claw their way back in to the contest against the Lady Wildcats, forcing a Sonora timeout when they got to within 11-13. Middleton continued to serve and points from her teammates saw Escalon get over the hump, finally taking the lead at 14-13. The squads then battled, trading points, and a couple of massive kills from Mandy Murphy along with some well-placed tips over the net by Valeria Gonzalez and Carsyn Hood paved the way for a 24-22 Escalon lead. Murphy would notch the final point on a kill to give Escalon the 25-22 win in set two to go up 2-0 in the match.
Sonora – which had gotten to the finals without dropping a set in the playoffs – had a hard time regrouping after losing the first two to Escalon and could never really get on track in the third and final set.
Escalon players on the court, their teammates standing courtside and the fans in the stands could feel how close the title was and each point was reason for celebration. Sonora worked hard to try and come back, getting to within 14-8 at one point, but the Lady Cougars would not be denied. They went on a point streak from 19-9 all the way to 24-9 before Sonora got their last point of the night, at 24-10.
Vickers put the exclamation point on the win, on a ball that Sonora couldn’t return, and the Section title returned to Escalon.
Williamson admitted she didn’t come in thinking sweep.
“No, I definitely thought it would go five,” she said of anticipating a marathon match with the Lady Wildcats, though taking it in three suited her just fine.
Stats leaders in the Section final were Emily Vickers with three aces, nine kills and 10 digs; Mandy Murphy with 10 kills; Rylie Lattig with 20 assists; Bella Cormack with seven blocks; Grace Ferreira with 14 digs.
Assisting Williamson on the bench for the playoff run were her varsity assistant coach Stephanie Ceja; JV coach Krystal Rodriguez; and freshman coach Shaylynn Beam.