Moments after closing out a tough four-set win over their crosstown rivals on Oct. 29, the Sobrato High girls volleyball players formed a circle and jumped in unison, chanting, “CCS, CCS, CCS!” Having already entered the match against Live Oak with an automatic Central Coast Section playoff berth in hand, the Bulldogs merely put an exclamation point on their accomplishment by avenging their only loss this season in Blossom Valley League Santa Teresa South Division play.
“Watching the girls at the end there, those are the moments that put a smile on your face as a coach,” Sobrato coach Daniel Clifton said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The No. 8 seed Bulldogs (15-6) fell to No. 9 Monterey (20-13) in the opening round of the CCS Division III playoffs last Saturday at home. Game scores were in favor of Monterey, 25-17, 25-16, 19-25, 25-19. Before the season started, the team knew it was good enough to get to the playoff stage—it just needed to go out and execute. Natalia Medina, the team’s outstanding senior middle blocker, certainly did her part against Live Oak, which finished the season in third place in the Santa Teresa South Division with a 5-5 record.
Medina was unstoppable whenever she received a quick set, hammering the ball with ruthless aggression and pinpoint accuracy. The 6-foot-2 senior also finished with four solo blocks and eight block assists, displaying a tremendous net presence. Clifton said Medina has been instrumental not only for her play during matches, but for her willingness to prep the team’s middle blockers who will take her place next year and beyond.
“She’s taught our other middles—especially our younger ones like Maria (Brozic)—and pushed them to be better blockers,” he said. “She’s shown Maria different ways to block. All four of my middles are at the top of the blocking stats because they’ve all worked so hard on technique, which is all from Natalia.”
Medina was certainly a star on the court in more ways than one. As one of the team’s three players who were being honored on Senior Night, Medina had close to 20 family members and friends in attendance, all of whom took pictures with her afterward.
“It feels really good to know I have a solid group of people that took time out of their day to come and support me,” she said. “They made time for me because they believe in me. We had a nice home crowd, and the support really helped us out.”
Especially at the beginning, when Sobrato jumped out to a quick lead in Game 1. However, the Acorns—as they’ve done all season—weren’t about to go down without a fight. In fact, after falling behind 8-3, Live Oak came all the way back to take the lead at 13-12. Game 1 was incredible, featuring 12 ties and 13 lead changes, a thrilling affair that ended when Jasmine Mapalad delivered a crosscourt kill to give Sobrato a 25-23 victory.
Game 1 served as a harbinger to the competitiveness of the match, as every set came down to the wire with the exception of Game 4, which the Bulldogs won, 25-18. This was a grind-it-out contest featuring some marathon rallies. The two evenly-matched teams went back and forth, with one team going on a run only to see the other team answer. Any time a team scored several points in a row, it coincided with the other squad enduring a string of bad passing. In the end, Sobrato’s passing was a tick better than Live Oak’s, proving to be the difference.
Both teams have standout liberos, with Live Oak having Hannah Havstad and Sobrato having Annette Angeles. Havstad and Angeles proved their worth by covering the court well and showing tremendous range in tracking down balls.
“Our libero, she’s a rock star,” Acorns coach Kathleen Davis said. “She’s always a rock star, a hard worker and true athlete. She really wants to win and pretty much will do whatever it takes to make it happen.”
Clifton echoed similar sentiments on his defensive whiz Angeles.
“Our libero is definitely special,” he said. “She’s one of the few girls that I can say is 100 percent fearless. She will go sideline to sideline diving through hoops of fire to get to a ball. I’ve had to call her off and stop her from sliding in front of the bench because she has no off switch. It’s the ball must go up and that’s her only M-O. It’s awesome to watch and you can clearly tell she wants it and will do whatever she can to put the team in a winning position.”
Live Oak prevailed in four games when the teams played for the first time on Oct. 16. The Acorns handled their nerves and emotions better in that match, and that usually proves to be the difference any time the two crosstown rivals play in any sport. In the rematch, the Bulldogs were able to settle down their emotions and simply play.
“The girls had a lot of nerves coming into tonight, but you could tell from the very beginning they wanted it and they were going to do whatever it took to come out on top,” Clifton said. “Overall, everyone did what was expected of them and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
The Acorns were downright sluggish at the start of the first three games, falling behind early and having to rally. They did take the early lead in Game 4 only to see the Bulldogs rally and win the set going away.
“At times we were just a little overwhelmed,” Davis said. “We were a little nervous because we’re crosstown rivals, so I think it was a little bit in their heads. Sobrato is a good team and they deserved to win.”
Davis has seen tremendous growth from her players. Although their calling card is defense, the Acorns have capable hitters in Aleah Rafat, Janelle Laflin and Sofia Lacerda. The trio each had their moments throughout the match, providing points via hard-hit balls or tips. Lacerda happens to play setter, but gets in on the offensive attack because of her varied skill set.
“Sofia is doing a great job and is an aggressive player,” Davis said. “Aleah is a Monte Vista Christian-transfer and had to sit out a good portion of the season, but once she was eligible to play, she was awesome. She’s aggressive, likes to take charge and likes to make stuff happen. And Janelle has been reliable, consistent and has pretty much owned the net and shuts people down. Once the team gets in a groove, they’re almost unstoppable.”
Defensive specialist Ayra Gomez provided tremendous passing, especially late in Game 4 when she dug up three attacks which led to a Live Oak point to make it 24-20. Davis said she was proud of her girls for improving as the season went along, Live Oak held its own in tournament action and was at its best when it passed well and had its defense in sync. Even though the Acorns didn’t reach their goal of winning a division title, they’re set up well for next season. In a rare occurrence, Live Oak doesn’t have a single senior on its roster, meaning if all the starters and impact players return for 2020, it could be the odds-on favorite to win the Santa Teresa South Division championship.
“There are a lot of things to look up for next year,” Davis said. “We’ve got great players, a lot of growth potential and I’m excited to see what next year will bring—hopefully a league championship and automatic CCS bid.”
For the Bulldogs, their time is now. They have powerful hitters in Medina, Saskia Vaillancourt and Dina Mercier, tremendous blockers in Medina and Maria Brozic and solid passing led by Angeles. Vaillancourt had some potent attacks, none better than the facial shot she delivered coming from the left side to a Live Oak player who was 8 to 10 feet off the net, no less.
From the outset of Tuesday night’s match, the crowd was in it and provided a lively setting. Medina and her teammates took notice, and they eventually used the energy to their advantage.
“We were all really excited and a bit nervous at first, but the whole idea of Senior Night and having a lot of support really helped us out,” Medina said. “It felt pretty good and empowering to hear a big roar from the crowd after we would win a point.”
At the beginning of the season, Medina wasn’t satisfied in her blocking production. She felt her form was off, so she diligently went about practice each day with a purpose to improve in every facet of the game. Toward the end of the regular-season, Medina felt she had gotten into a rhythm whenever she went up for a block. Clifton noticed, too.
“Natalia is an absolute wall when it comes to blocking,” he said. “Her ability to read the setter and get her body positioned in front of the hitter all in a split moment’s notice is second to none.”