State volleyball playoffs: Cardinal Newman loses heartbreaker


GRASS VALLEY — Playing the Sac-Joaquin Section champions 150 miles from home, Cardinal Newman’s volleyball team saw its season end after a tight first-round match in the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs on Tuesday night.

After splitting the first two games with Bear River (31-12), the Cardinals (25-9) lost a heartbreaker of a third game, 30-28, which helped pave the way for the Bruins’ four-game win.

Led by hitter Emily Papale and setter Emily Bonfigli, both seniors, the Cardinals took advantage of early mistakes by the Pioneer Valley League co-champions and won the first game, 25-20, with relative ease.

Bruins coach Matt MacDonald said Papale’s versatile game kept his team guessing all night. Papale, who had 32 kills on the night, alternated fierce spikes with soft tap shots to the empty spaces on the floor. Despite the immense talent of the Bruins’ versatile front-line, they looked caught off-guard dozens of times throughout the night.

“We were definitely aware of Emily Papale,” MacDonald said, saying his strategy coming into the game was to keep the ball away from Papale and force the rest of the Cardinals to earn the win.

The strategy proved only partly effective, thanks to excellent ball movement by Bonfigli and the Cardinals’ back-line players. As a result, Papale was devastatingly effective for stretches.

“We were so ready for (Papale) to crush the heck out of the ball,” MacDonald said. “But she’s getting tip kills left and right. She’s unbelievable.”

Perhaps a bit overconfident after being just the second team to win a game against Bear River this postseason, the Cardinals went down quickly in the second set, losing 25-16. As dominant as the Cardinals looked in that first game, the Bruins looked even better, thanks to a deep front line led by hitters Sara Schell, Kirsten Pereira and Teryn Rath, as well as setter Kaya Johnson.

Early on, Game 3 was all Cardinal Newman, which raced out to an early 15-9 lead before the Bruins started battling back.

Bear River fought to cut the deficit to two before rattling off six straight points to take a 22-19 lead. From that point, the game turned into a tense, back-and-forth affair. Needing to win by two, the Cardinals forged leads of 25-24, 26-25, 27-26 and 28-27 but just could not get that last point to put the Bruins away. Perhaps the most painful missed chance came with Cardinal Newman up 25-24. The Cardinals opted to let a return from the Bruins drop, thinking it would go out of bounds, but it landed just inside the line to knot the game at 25-all.

Missed opportunities caught up to Cardinal Newman and Bear River eked out a 30-28 win.

Both Cardinal Newman coach Anna Waller and Bear River’s MacDonald thought that third game was the decider.

“You work so hard getting that close, and it’s a major let-down,” Waller said.

Despite the let-down of losing the prolonged Game 3, the Cardinals came out strong in the fourth game, taking leads of 8-5, 12-8 and 17-13 before a questionable call took point No. 18 away.

Waller said the official ruled that one of her back-row players had crossed within 10 feet of the net but disagreed with the call. Instead of having an 18-14 lead, Cardinal Newman led 17-15 and had to give the ball back to Bear River, who rattled off eight of the next nine points to essentially decide the match.

Despite the disappointing end to their season, the Cardinals have improved significantly under Waller. Taking over when Ursuline’s student body was folded into Cardinal Newman, Waller led the program to its first section finals since 1996, when the then-Bears also finished runner-up.

Eric Wittmershaus is The Press Democrat’s online sports editor. You can reach him at 521-5433 or