By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
WALNUT CREEK — So much for easing into a match. The first game of this North Coast Section Division 2 semifinal game at Northgate High on Wednesday night was both harrowing and draining. There were 16 ties, and neither team led by more than two points.
Visiting Maria Carrillo, the third seed, finally outlasted No. 2 Northgate in that opening frame. And when the Pumas took the court for the next game, they couldn’t help but notice the flat expressions on the other side of the net.
“I think they were a little surprised,” Carrillo coach Jeffrey Nielson said afterward.
“We even said it in our huddle before the second game,” Pumas middle hitter Mikaela Francis recalled. “When we walked away we could see their faces, and they were down.”
Buoyant Maria Carrillo raced to a 12-1 lead in Game 2, fought back a few Northgate rallies along the way and emerged with a 27-25, 25-19, 27-25 victory, earning the Pumas a place in Saturday’s D2 championship game. They will host No. 4 Las Lomas, which upset top seed Redwood in five sets Wednesday.
Carrillo has already earned a spot in the CIF State Volleyball Championships, which begin next week. But after losing to Redwood in the NCS final a year ago, the Pumas are determined to bring home the program’s fourth section banner.
“It’s a good feeling to get to the state tournament,” Nielson said. “But really our goal ever since the season started was to win the section title. We felt like we let our fans down and our school down by losing on our home court last year.”
If the Maria Carrillo girls play as they did Wednesday, they’ll be hard to beat in the final.
It was Northgate that handed Carrillo (29-5) its most recent loss, 2-1 at a tournament here on Oct. 27. The Pumas came away from that contest feeling as if they could have overtaken the Broncos in a best-of-five match. They also gained some familiarity with the Northgate gym, so it didn’t feel so foreign on Wednesday.
When the Pumas got here for the playoff game, they heard about that loss from the home fans, and even from some of the Broncos players. It was more fuel for the fire, and it helped Maria Carrillo get off to a fast start.
But after falling behind 12-1 in that second game, Northgate fought back to make it 13-10. It went back and forth from there until the Pumas ended the game with a 6-2 flourish, paced by two big hits from Calan Seitz and a couple nice plays by Brittney Veler, including the block that won it.
The third game was another slugfest. Neither team mounted a rally until the Broncos scored five straight points to go up 20-14.
But Maria Carrillo came right back with three points, finally tied it at 23-23, and wrapped up the match on back-to-back plays — one offensive, one defensive — by Francis.
Carrillo was vexed by a couple of strange plays in that third game. One high ball caromed off a basketball rim and backboard just off the court, and away from a waiting Puma; the officials ruled she had enough time to adjust to the ball. Nine points later, Seitz drove a shot that landed out of bounds. The Carrillo coaches were certain it had touched a Bronco first. The officials, unsure, ordered a replay of the point.
Fortunately, those calls had little effect on the outcome.
If the Pumas’ victory wasn’t shocking, their three-game sweep was. Northgate is a worthy opponent, led by 6-foot-2 outside hitter Michelle Lawrence, who will play at Colorado State next year. Some of Lawrence’s hits were simply indefensible. Other times, though, Carrillo found ways to challenge her.
“We worked hard to take her out of the game,” Nielson said. “I mean, we knew she was gonna get kills. She’s a fantastic player. And so we really worked hard on serving away from her, so the setter would at least have to push the ball all the way across.”
Led by Lawrence and blockers Kelsey LaCour and Jade Lee, the Broncos were strong hitters. But the Pumas were generally more accurate, and more consistent.
Francis led the way with 15 kills, a .608 hitting percentage and two aces. Seitz had 14 kills, Courtney Seda had 15 digs and five kills, libero Cassie Blanchard had 17 digs and Ali Wiesner added 16 digs.
The Pumas are an upbeat team, and loaded with experience. Of their five seniors, Francis, Seitz and Wiesner are four-year starters, and Kelli Kingsborough and Mikaela Woodbury are three-year starters. All of them played in the state tournament last year, but none of them has won an NCS title.
Saturday, they will attempt to rectify that.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.