It wasn’t where they wanted to end their season – but Escalon’s varsity volleyball girls traveled to Bear River for a hard fought quarterfinal 3-2 loss on Thursday night.
“It was an epic drive and an epic game,” said head coach Kayla Kootstra.
The sixth seeded Lady Cougars opened the playoffs at home, hosting Bret Harte on Tuesday night, Nov. 10. After being dealt a 21-25 setback in game one, the host varsity girls battled the Bullfrogs to a 29-27 win in game two.
“We were just kind of flat, we weren’t doing anything terrible, we weren’t doing anything really good, either,” Kootstra said of starting out the Tuesday evening contest. “It was kind of a wake-up call, when we lost that first game.”
Bret Harte came ready to play and the back-and-forth nature of game two got the crowd into it as the hometown girls fought their way through to the win.
Even though it was a victory, Kootstra did some tinkering with the line up for game three, which seemed to have a settling effect on the team, as they fell back into comfortability and got some solid serving and took down Bret Harte in a 25-14 decision.
“I went with the line up from the middle of the season,” Kootstra noted. “I just felt like it seemed to flow better for the rest of those two games.”
After finding the rhythm in game three, the Lady Cougars never really let Bret Harte get back in the contest, shutting them down 25-12 in game four and winning the match, 3-1.
Four players were in double digits in digs, leading the defense, with 20 from Kylie Irwin-Paz, 13 from Taylor Laugero and 11 each from Natalie Bianchi and Nicole Sarkozy.
Sarkozy also racked up 14 kills, Laugero had 22 assists and Cydney Keener had 20. Laugero added six aces on the night.
Thursday, it was quarterfinal action on the road, the girls taking on the number three-seed Bear River squad.
“The girls actually handled the travel really well,” Kootstra said. “You are always a little nervous going that far, we got up there early on purpose, I was afraid we would hit traffic if we left too late.”
In town for a 7 p.m. start, Kootstra said the squad arrived about 3 p.m., had the opportunity to eat and relax for a little bit, got to the gym about 5:45 p.m. and were on the court to begin warm-ups at 6 p.m.
In game one, the host team prevailed, with Escalon falling in a 17-25 decision.
“I had a little bit of déjà vu about Bret Harte,” Kootstra admitted of the slow start. “I had scouted them (Bear River) and gave the girls some notes in practice on Wednesday but until you see a team on the court, you’re not sure how you’re going to respond.”
Early on, the team wasn’t crisp, with no flow on the offense and some miscues on defense.
But as they have throughout the season, the girls rallied back and pushed their opponent.
“We buckled down in the second, I went back again to Taylor setting in the second game, we won the second 28-26 and props to the girls for battling,” noted Kootstra. “The third game, we were ready to go, we took control, we won 25-22 and didn’t lose the lead at any time.”
Up two games to one, Kootstra said she was hoping the momentum would build.
“I told them I wanted to get this in four, I didn’t want to go to five games with them,” the coach said. “We wanted to put them away but we just couldn’t do it.”
Losing 14-25 in game four, Escalon gave Bear River everything they had in the deciding game five, falling just a little short at the end.
“The girls came out raring to go, it was seriously a battle, back and forth points, they would take the lead, then side out, we would get the lead and then side out,” Kootstra explained. “We were tied at 12, then they scored the final three points and we lost 12-15.”
That knocked Escalon out of the playoffs, with Bear River moving on. Next up for Bear River, a trip to number two Hilmar, while on the other side of the bracket, number five Ripon travels to top seed Sonora. Winner of those semifinal matches meet Saturday, Nov. 21 for the Section title.
Against Bear River, Irwin-Paz had 15 kills and Laugero notched 40 assists.
“Natalie Bianchi had the best game she’s had all season, she went in at libero and matched up against their outside hitter, Natalie started digging her in the second game and that was what propelled us,” said Kootstra. “Josie Redberg also played good defense in games two and three.”
Overall, the Lady Cougars end the season with a record of 22-15.
“It was a ton of volleyball, that’s with tournaments and everything, too,” Kootstra noted. “It has been a long season. You hate to lose, especially when it was within our reach, I’m still so proud of how the girls battled, every game, every practice was leading up to the game against Bear River, that’s what we were working for, to play with teams like that.”
Kootstra said though the end result of the five-game epic battle was a loss, it proved that the squad can compete at a high level.
“I’m glad that even though we went out earlier than I would have liked to, we went out playing great volleyball and representing how well we have played volleyball this season.”