NCS volleyball: D6 final's familiar foes two of four Empire teams playing Saturday

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

“On paper we’re seemingly very evenly matched,” Anderson Valley volleyball coach Michael McDonald said of the Panthers’ impending matchup against Rincon Valley Christian. “If you look at our schedules, we beat each other, and many of the teams we lost to are the same teams, too. So the schedules look identical. But Rincon Valley is really the powerhouse in D6 year in and year out.”

Down in Santa Rosa, RVC coach Jim Andrews made his Eagles sound like anything but favorites.

“They’ve won it two years in row. He’s very gracious, a very humble guy,” Andrews said of McDonald and his team. “He might not have a lot of height to work with up there. But I’d love to have two weeks off to be able to just go up there and watch him work with his girls. He gets them to play at a high, consistent level.”

If Anderson Valley and Rincon Valley Christian are volleying the compliments back and forth, this must be playoff season. And these two small-school powers must once again be on a collision course for the Division 6 title.

Six North Coast Section division volleyball championships will be decided Saturday, and for the first time in more than a decade, four Redwood Empire teams are in the finals. No. 3 seed Maria Carrillo hosts No. 4 Las Lomas in Division 2, while No. 2 Cardinal Newman plays at No. 1 St. Patrick/St. Vincent in Division 3.

And then there is that familiar head-to-head confrontation in D6: top seed Anderson Valley, the two-time defending champion, against No. 2 RVC, which owns three NCS banners and has played in a section championship game four of the past six years.

While finalists from Divisions 1-5 advance to the CIF State Volleyball Championships, this is the ultimate step for the smallest schools.

These programs are not strangers. They play every season, though the Panthers compete in the North Central League III and the Eagles are in the NCL II. This year, Anderson Valley (27-6) swept a best-of-five-set match very early in the season, while Rincon Valley Christian (27-5) won 2-1 in the Mustang Classic at St. Vincent on Sept. 22.

It all comes down to this crucial rubber match. The Panthers, and three individual players — Karina Perez, Mirla Gaxiola and Stephany Garcia — are gunning for their third straight section title, a rare feat. The Eagles are determined to end their reign.

Making the battle even more intriguing is the strong contrast in styles that will be on display at Anderson Valley on Saturday. Led by senior hitter Hannah Andrews — whom McDonald says might be the best offensive player in NCS Divisions 4, 5 and 6 — RVC is an attacking team that knows how to put away points.

Hannah Andrews, bound for NAIA-level Concordia University in Irvine, is close to 6-foot-3. Anderson Valley’s tallest frontline player is, uh, not quite that tall.

“Not even close,” McDonald said. “I don’t think we’re within half a foot — maybe 5-7. Hannah Andrews goes over the top of us, easily. When she’s on the net and we put up our biggest player, she goes right over the top. We have no chance to block her, so we have to do something else besides trying that.”

Elsewhere on the line is Hannah’s younger sister (and Jim Andrews’ younger daughter), Kierstin, who stands about 6-foot-1.

Anderson Valley, meanwhile, takes a methodical, even cautious approach to volleyball. The Panthers seek to get the ball over the net as frequently as possible, eschewing the perfect dig-set-smack play for bump sets and soft, accurate hits. It can drive opponents nuts.

“The way I look at it, if you’ve ever played ping-pong against someone with that style, you know what it’s like,” Jim Andrews said. “They lay in wait and wait you out to get overaggressive and slam it. And into the net it goes.”

While both teams excelled once again in 2012, their paths were not without curves.

Anderson Valley, despite having a freshman and two sophomores in the starting lineup, was cruising at 20-2 when it entered the Healdsburg Invitational — and promptly lost all four games of the tournament, to International, Healdsburg, Middletown and Windsor.

“It’s near the end of your season, you think you’re possibly hitting your stride, and we went oh-for-the-tournament,” McDonald said. “It’s definitely been a work in progress for our kids.”

Rincon Valley is in the midst of a big challenge of its own. One of the Eagles’ starting outside hitters is currently with her family in Hawaii. Last year she passed up the vacation to play volleyball. This year she joined her family at a timeshare, and will miss her third playoff game Saturday.

“I had to take my sophomore daughter and move her to outside hitting instead of the middle,” Andrews said. “She’s much more comfortable with the middle. … And we had to bring somebody off the bench who is still learning the sport. Claire Doolittle, she’s a basketball player. But she’s coming along.”

Despite all those hurdles, you might have picked the Panthers and Eagles to meet in the championship game, just as you might now predict a tight matchup. In last year’s D6 final, Anderson Valley won in five sets. The final three sets went 25-23, 23-25, 16-14. As well as the two squads know one another, this year’s contest could be just as close.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil [dot] barber [at] pressdemocrat [dot] com.