WATSONVILLE — A month ago, the Aptos High Mariners stole the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League crown from Soquel High in a five-set nail-biter.
In hindsight, Knights head coach Jeanine Haldi was A-OK with letting a league title slip through her team’s grasp.
They might have lost that battle but the refocusing defeat ultimately helped the Knights win the war.
Behind its hard-hitting one-two punch of outside hitters Maggie Walters and Sam Strah, top-seeded Soquel topped No. 2 Aptos 25-20, 18-25, 25-14, 25-16 on Saturday night for the Central Coast Section Division III title at Watsonville High.
The Knights (24-6) finished second in the SCCAL behind co-champions Harbor High and Aptos (14-8) but outlasted both of their league rivals in the end for the program’s second-ever section title and first since 2011.
Saturday’s win made coming up short in league a little more palatable.
“This trumps that for sure,” Haldi said. “We have a good league. They helped us get ready for this.”
Ready and motivated.
The Mariners edged the Knights on Oct. 12 en route to a share of their fifth straight league championship.
Steaming after the loss, Soquel reeled off 10 straight victories to earn a winner-take-all rubber match with Aptos. Sure, the SCCAL title was no longer at stake but the CCS championship and all the bragging rights that go along with a victory over a county rival were definitely in the balance.
Soquel made sure it didn’t waste its opportunity to rewrite the history books.
“Everything was on our side. We were different,” Haldi said. “They had a different mentality. They were so determined to get this win for so many different reasons. It could’ve been anyone on the other side, my team was just ready to win.”
Walters, a senior, and Strah, a sophomore, were unstoppable at times with their strikes. The two combined for 40 kills and made the Mariners’ usually airtight defense look mundane.
Aptos Freshman libero Peyton Dueck made 20 digs, junior outside hitter Jillian Rodriguez added 12 and senior setter Dani Hewitt chimed in with seven but the Knights’ duo kept hammering away and eventually wore down the Mariners in the final two sets.
“Maggie was really on fire and we just didn’t get many hitting opportunities,” Rodriguez said.
An impressive 7-0 run in the third set with Strah zipping blistering overhand jump serves proved to be the tipping point of the match. The offensive explosion gave Soquel a 20-10 lead in the third and all the momentum heading into the decisive fourth set.
Aside from the second set, the Mariners never did find the magic that had carried them through a 12-match win streak and into their second straight CCS championship game.
“It was just a kill clinic,” said Aptos head coach Ashley Tennant. “They got a grouping of their kills in the first and third set and we got our grouping in the second set and that’s what created their momentum and that energy. You could totally hear a difference once that team was able to piece five kills or so in a row. I was expecting our defense to be the unbelievable defense that they are and try to prevent their kill clinic, but it just didn’t piece out as perfect as we would’ve liked."
Saturday was not only the third match between Aptos and Soquel this season but the second time the rivals had met for a CCS championship. The Mariners outlasted the Knights in five sets in 1992 for the program’s first and only section title.
This year’s matchup seemed to be heading to a fifth set, too, after the back and forth play from each squad but Soquel kept its errors to a minimum in the fourth set and Strah and Walters proved to be too much down the stretch.
“They wanted it,” Haldi said of her team. “For them, there was going to be no other result. They were not going to be satisfied with anything else than a title. Before it was like trying. Tonight was about doing.”
Rodriguez had 10 kills and seniors Madelin Smith and Abbi Saxton each added five.
Smith had a trio of kills in the second set during the Mariners’ impressive 6-0 run, which allowed them to cruise to a match-tying win.
Soquel, however, filled up all the cracks in its defense in the following two sets and made life tough on the Aptos offense. Walters had 21 digs, Strah added 23 and sophomore setter Sam Werdmuller made 11.
“We didn’t end up playing the way we knew we could’ve,” Smith said. “We had a few communication errors in the beginning and we were having trouble finding the floor. The defense was fine, the sets were there but us trying to find the floor on their side of the court was difficult. We didn’t have as many opportunities to do that.”
Smith, Hewitt and Saxton all played their final volleyball game for the Mariners, as only the Knights will move on to the California Interscholastic Federation NorCal playoffs, which start next week.
In total, Aptos will lose nine seniors to graduation: Braelynn Westjohn, Trinita Barrios, Lauren Picone, Sierra Martin, Hannah Devery, Dana Foley, Smith, Hewitt and Saxton.
They will also lose their head coach. Tennant said she is moving on after two seasons in which she totaled a 38-19 record, won a pair of SCCAL titles and led the program to its first section final since 1997.
The University of Rhode Island alumna and Long Beach native said the program is set up for success with the amount of young talent returning.
“Throughout the season we had four or five underclassmen on the court,” Tennant said. “They’ll get the opportunity to get this one, two or three more times. Wherever I am, I will definitely be cheering them on.”