By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A funny thing happened on Thursday night at the Maria Carrillo gym after the girls’ North Bay League tournament championship volleyball game. Both teams came away happy.
Top-seeded Maria Carrillo (27-5, 14-0) was riding high after defeating third-seed Cardinal Newman 3-1 (25-22, 25-15, 13-25, 25-19) en route to clinching the NBL tournament — icing on the cake to the Pumas’ NBL regular-season crown and undefeated league record.
Cardinal Newman (22-7, 9-5), though, played fiercely and far exceeded its two regular-season efforts against Maria Carrillo (both 3-0 losses) and came away with a feel-good vibe.
“Battling against Maria Carrillo like we did, we are very pleased with how we did tonight,” Cardinal Newman coach Anna Waller said. “This is the best we have ever played them by far” (in Waller’s two-year tenure).
The match was certainly not the usual walk-in-the-park for the powerhouse Pumas. The Cardinals won game 3 and challenged the Pumas in games 1 and 4.
“Newman was fantastic tonight. Hats off to them,” Maria Carrillo coach Jeff Nielson said. “They played the best they have (ever) played against.”
Both coaches said the match was what they were looking forward to as the final primer before teams are selected for the North Coast Section playoffs on Sunday. Both teams will certainly make the NCS (Cardinals in Division IV and Pumas in Division II) so the only suspense is simply a matter of where each will be seeded.
“We are hoping for a high seed. But, wherever they choose to put us, they put us,” Nielson said. “The girls are ready for the next chapter.”
Waller said she would like the Cardinals to get a No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
“This is the game we needed to prepare us for NCS,” Waller said.
The Pumas led the first game throughout, but were never able to shake the Cardinals, who were only down two or three points as the game progressed. Maria Carrillo final won 25-22 as the Pumas’ Mikaela Woodbury served the clincher a little short but got a fortuitous bounce off the top of the net, deadening the ball as it fell to the Cardinals’ side of the court.
Cardinal Newman came out deflated in the second game and seemed to have lost energy from the close loss. The Pumas took advantage and jumped out to a 6-1 lead.
“We were a little down in the second game,” Waller said.
The Pumas won the second game, 25-15, but the Cardinals came out resolute in the third game and took a 21-10 lead and clinched it on an unforced volley error by the Pumas.
“In the third game, we wanted it. We battled defensively in that game,” Waller said. “We dug a ton of balls in the third game. Maria Carrillo’s hitters got frustrated and started making errors.”
The fourth game was another tight one, with Cardinal Newman staking out a 14-11 lead midway through. The Pumas went on a 9-1 run to take command 20-15.
“Our serve-receive passing broke down during that stretch,” Waller said. “But we passed pretty well for the game.”
Sensing victory, Maria Carrillo closed out the fourth game and the match on a kill by Calan Seitz.
“We probably relaxed a little bit in game 3 but we came right back in game 4,” Nielson said. “This feels like one of our best matches of the season.”
The Pumas were led by Seitz with 16 kills and four service aces. Cassie Blanchard had 29 digs and Courtney Seda had 23 digs.
The Cardinals were paced by Emily Papale with 22 kills, Emily Bonfigli with 35 assists and Mimi Fowler with 11 digs.