By Sam Stack, Print Editor-in-Chief
Grit, perseverance, and the will to win are all characteristics of a champion. The Acalanes women’s volleyball team possesses and embodies all of these qualities.
After taking down Crossroads High School from Santa Monica in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division III State title game, the Lady Dons captured the second State Championship in Acalanes’ 75 year history. The previous one was in 1999 by the girls basketball team.
Despite being knocked out in the North Coast Section (NCS) Division III playoffs in the semifinals by Miramonte, it’s probably safe to say that the Lady Dons would rather win this state title than NCS. Due to their seeding and results in NCS, the Lady Dons earned the number 2 seed in the CIF playoff bracket, also earning a bye in the Round of 16.
“After we lost to Miramonte in the semifinals, we realized we had to pick it up to do what needed to be done in state,” senior co-captain Parker Jones said.
Their first two games resulted in easy victories over Aptos 3-1 in the quarterfinals and Buhach Colony 3-0 in the semifinals. But the epic grind began as they moved on to the NorCal regional finals versus Sonora, who beat Miramonte in the semifinals. Hosted at Acalanes on November 26, this game might have gone down in history as one of the best volleyball games ever. An electric atmosphere rocked the big gym as students decked out in a sea of blue, chanted “Let’s Go Dons!” while rooting for the team. After all, no Acalanes volleyball team had made it this close to glory.
The match was an absolute battle with neither team ceding victory. The Lady Dons found themselves down 1-0 after the first set but showed their “Never Say Die” attitude winning the second game. Things got tense as Sonora won the third game and then found themselves with a 17-12 lead in the fourth set.
“At that point we stopped playing as individuals and really meshed as a team and made our comeback,” Grobeck said.
After a timeout, the Lady Dons stormed back to steal the set from Sonora, winning it 28-26 in an incredible back and forth sequence.
The fifth was even crazier as neither team had more than a one point lead until the end. After freshman Lane Webster’s ace to take the 5th set, the Lady Dons were heading to the State Championship.
Head Coach Ernie Rodriguez, in his first year at Acalanes, always felt confident in his team, even in the most crucial situations.
“I kept telling the girls that I felt extremely comfortable in game 5. We had been in that position multiple times this year and had a lot of success when we were there. We were very comfortable just getting there. We just had to keep doing what we were doing,” Rodriguez said.
Jones shared her thoughts on playing Sonora.
“Sonora was our toughest opponent throughout the playoffs, they had really good players and played the best defense out of everyone that we faced,” Jones said.
Junior Theresa Nevins agreed.
“Sonora was tougher for sure,” Nevins said. “That was a true fight but we were lucky and we battled through.”
However, the Lady Dons weren’t satisfied with their journey just yet. They still had a State Championship to play against the 11 seeded Crossroads from Southern California on December 3. The Roadrunners had an impressive résumé, boasting a 27-4 record going into the Championship. They also had a quasi-home court advantage as the game was to be played at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, California, only a short distance from Crossroads High School.
“We didn’t know a lot about Crossroads because it was hard to get film of them,” senior co-captain Melissa Elliott said. “We did, however, get some film of their regional game. We saw that they tipped a lot so we focused on that.”
The Lady Dons didn’t let that get to them as they came out to a hot start, winning the first set 25-13. But the Lady Dons still had a long way to go. The second set was back and forth until the Roadrunners had a set point. Jones wouldn’t go away quietly as she got two kills giving the Lady Dons a set point. Senior Devin Grobeck then served an ace that kissed off the net and dropping right in front of the Crossroads players’ feet.
“I wish I could say that was skill, but I tried to serve so it would be tough for them to get it. I aimed a little too much and it was lucky that the ball made it over,” Grobeck said.
The Lady Dons now found themselves one set away from a State Championship. The third set was neck and neck as well until the Lady Dons took a 22-20 lead. But Crossroads wasn’t ready to end their season, finishing off the set with 5 straight points and staying alive.
Acalanes still had the advantage and only had to win one more set for the title, only their play got tight in the fourth set and Crossroads built up a lead. The Lady Dons found themselves down 18-10 and could not muster a comeback, losing the set 25-17.
“Crossroads did some really good stuff,” Elliott said. “They’re definitely a good team as it was not just us being relaxed and making mistakes but they had some really good plays.”
At this point, things were looking grim as the Lady Dons lost their lead and all of their momentum. Now the State Championship would come down to a single set to 15 points.
It became tense as Crossroads built up a 10-7 lead, but the Lady Dons continued to show their endurance. After scoring four straight points, Acalanes took the lead 11-10. Both teams then exchanged the next few points but the Lady Dons pulled out to a 14-12 lead and championship point.
But just like the match itself, Crossroads came back to make it 14-14. Then senior Alex Matson had a clutch kill to take a one point lead and another championship point. The Lady Dons went back to serve, after a long rally Jones went up for the kill. She smashed the ball at a vulnerable Crossroads defender who attempted to return the ball, but the ball traveled out of bounds.
A rush of white Dons jerseys rushed off the bench meeting their teammates on the court, tears of joy flowing and hugs all around. The Lady Dons had captured the State Title.
“It’s indescribable to say how I felt after we won, it was just a surreal moment,” Grobeck said.
Jones felt the same way.
“However happy I was after winning NorCal regionals, it was ten times better winning state,” Jones said.
Nevins described the dog pile at center court.
“I just collapsed,” Nevins said. “It was so emotional and it was so amazing to end your season with a win. It was very fun, with lots of hugs and lots of crying.
The road to the state championship was truly a team effort; whether it was Nevins blocking a ball and slamming the ground in celebration, brilliant defense from various Lady Dons, or the steadfast support from the bench.
Grobeck had a couple standouts in mind when thinking about the playoffs.
“While everyone played great, junior Maddie Kalil played great defense and sophomore Roxy Cummings played insane offense,” Grobeck said.
Senior Melissa Elliott thought there was a larger component to why the Lady Dons achieved glory.
“I have never been so close to a team. We communicate, we talk, and we never have any conflict or drama between us. It was definitely our connection as a team that got us all the way to state champions,” Elliott said.
Rodriguez gave his feelings on the season as a whole.
“There was no quit in this team, not just in the last couple of weeks but the entire year. It was my first year there, and getting to know the girls, one of the feelings I got from them was that they were not going to give up on anything. They were going to run through walls to get balls and I felt that they did that all year long,” Rodriguez said.