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By Keith Peters
It was a good news-bad news kind of day for the Sacred Heart Prep girls' volleyball team on Saturday in the CIF Division IV State Championships at the San Jose State Event Center.
The bad news? The Gators dropped a 25-10, 25-15, 25-13 decision to nationally ranked and defending state champion La Jolla Country Day.
"It was pretty bad on our part," SHP coach Damien Hardy said of the final result.
And the good news? Well, Hardy can provide that, as well.
"We got here," Hardy said of the Gators reaching the state finals for the first time since 1998. "There are only nine other teams playing in December. Our team fought hard. The girls did the best they could.
"We lost eight seniors from last year," added Hardy. "Everyone thought we would be in a rebuilding year. If this is a rebuilding year, I can't wait for next year."
The NorCal champion Gators (24-11) will lose only setter Hanna Elmore and defensive specialist Vivian Wu to graduation. The rest of the starters – juniors Jesse Ebner, Olivia Bertolacci, Sarah Daschbach, Amelia Alvarez (who split setting duties with Elmore), plus sophomores Sonia Abuel-Saud and Ellie Shannon – all return along with junior Natalie Friel and sophomores Payton Smith and Helen Gannon.
"Like Damien said, if this is a rebuilding year, I can't wait to come back and see this team next year," said Elmore. "Watch out for this team."
Saturday's championship match was perhaps a dress rehearsal for next season for the Gators, who didn't even win their West Bay Athletic League title this season but progressed to win Central Coast Section and NorCal titles, nonetheless.
"I don't think any of us were discouraged after not winning league," Elmore said.
"We definitely gained experience that will help us out next year," added Daschbach, who led the Gators with six kills and 10 digs on a day when SHP hit a minus .064 as a team.
"That team (La Jolla) was good," Hardy said in the understatement of the day. "It was like playing an NCAA Division II team."
Actually, the Torrey Pines (33-3) may have as many as four NCAA Division I prospects, including Stanford-bound Lauren Birks, who had four kills and eight digs. Gillian Howard, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker who dominated the net with 10 kills and six blocks, is headed to Pacific. Senior setter Chloe Mathis, who had 33 assists, is ticketed for Arizona and 6-1 Mollie Rogers, who led La Jolla with 11 kills and 11 digs, is going to Yale.
Despite the lopsided but expected result, Hardy kept it positive afterward.
"No other NorCal team got a chance to play them," he said of the Torrey Pines, ranked as high as No. 10 nationally in one poll (prepvolleyball.com).
Daschbach said the Gators didn't come out nervous, but did play a bit tentative. Too many hitting and serve-receive errors didn't help, either.
"It was more of us trying to hit around them," she said. "Trying to overcome that block, which was big."
La Jolla was able to put two blockers on SHP hitters most of the afternoon, which forced the Gators to try to hit through or hit at odd angles. The result was just 14 kills in 78 attempts with 19 hitting errors. Sacred Heart hit .000 in the first set, a minus-.148 in the second and a minus-.036 in the third.
"I think that was a great learning experience," Daschbach said. "If had played them before, we would have had a better idea. We weren't exactly sure what to expect. We did not play teams like this in our league."