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By Rick Eymer
Sacred Heart Prep junior Jesse Ebner took a look at the all the championship banners adorning the walls inside the school's gymnasium and felt something was missing from the girls' volleyball banner.
No state championship appearances since 1998 and no state titles since 1996.
The Gators took the first step in rectifying the missing data when they beat visiting Notre Dame of Belmont, 19-25, 14-25, 25-14, 25-16, 15-9, Tuesday night to claim the Northern California Division IV championship.
The next step could come at noon Saturday when Sacred Heart Prep (24-10) meets La Jolla Country Day for the state title.
"Last year's team ended the CCS streak," Ebner said. "It was our time to get back to the state tournament."
Sacred Heart went 11 years between CCS titles from 1998 to 2009. The late 1980s and 1990s were kind to the Gators as they won every CCS title between 1989 and 1998. Then came the drought.
The Gators also ended a seven-match losing streak to Notre Dame last year, which dated to 2000. Sacred Heart is 4-3 in its last seven meetings with the Tigers.
It was only fitting that the Gators and Notre Dame met for the chance to play at the San Jose State Events Center, with first serve scheduled for noon. The Tigers and Sacred Heart Prep also dueled for the Central Coast Section title about 10 days ago at Independence High in San Jose.
The Gators prevailed in five sets in that contest. Notre Dame won two previous nonconference matches during the season. This time Sacred Heart made it a little more difficult on itself, dropping the first two sets in excruciatingly frustrating fashion.
After dropping the second set, the Gators fled the gymnasium for the brief three-minute intermission and pulled themselves together just in the nick of time.
"I knew after that meeting in the hall we could turn it around," Gators' Sarah Daschbach said. "We were almost embarrassed with our effort. Our motivation mostly came from our coach, Damien (Hardy). He believed in us and we believed in each other."
The Tigers took a quick 4-0 lead in the third set before Daschbach's service ace, two blocks from Ellie Shannon and Sonia Abuel-Saud's kill put an end to that. The burst seemed to mark an irrevocable shift in momentum.
"I think we just came out too tight," Ebner said. "We weren't talking to each other. We came back with more energy in the third set and that made a lot of difference."
The Gators took advantage, building on its lead until it became an 11-point edge by the time a hitting error gave Sacred Heart the third-set win, which carried over into the fourth set.
Notre Dame took a 6-4 lead in the final set before the Gators rallied for nine straight points. The only drama afterward was who would get to loft the NorCal trophy overheard first.
Daschbach led Sacred Heart with 16 kills and 18 digs. Abuel-Saud added 14 kills and 17 digs. Ebner had 11 kills and recorded nine blocks while Shannon had 10 blocks and seven kills.
The Gators will play La Jolla Country Day (23-4) in the state finals on Saturday at noon at The Event Center in San Jose. La Jolla is ranked No. 1 in the state in Division IV while SHP is ranked No. 2. La Jolla, however, is ranked No. 8 in California in the overall rankings, as well. Top-seeded La Jolla beat No. 2 Santa Fe Christian in the SoCal finals, 25-20, 25-19, 25-21.