WATSONVILLE — You wouldn’t like Sam Strah when she’s angry.
Aptos figured that out the hard way.
Not once, not twice, but three times this season.
The Soquel junior outside hitter posted a 22-kill, 22-dig double-double to lead the top-seeded Knights over the No. 2-seeded Mariners to the Central Coast Section Division III title for the second straight season.
Like last season, the match went to four sets: 16-25, 25-21, 25-19, 27-25.
Also like last season, Soquel (31-6) got the last laugh on Aptos (25-9) thanks in part to Strah’s brilliance.
“She gets into a mode, if she gets angry, we know what’s coming,” said Soquel head coach Jeanine Haldi. “It’s going to be over really quickly. She’s going to take over the match.”
The Mariners were looking to score a double dip of revenge on Saturday. The Knights had not only stonewalled the Mariners in last year’s CCS D-III Championship, they also swept the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League season series to end their rival’s five-year reign over the league.
Aptos almost gave itself a shot at redemption, as it held two set points in the fourth set, but both slipped through the Mariners’ collective fingers.
Strah, a Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo commit, saved the Knights on the first set point, and Aptos served into the net on the next.
Senior Phoebe Failor’s ace gave Soquel a match point, and Strah wrapped up the Knights’ second section crown in as many years with another blistering strike off the Aptos block.
“I exhaled (when Strah took over),” Haldi said. “I just said, ‘OK, she’s not going to let this happen. Not on her watch.’”
It took Strah some time to emerge from her mild-mannered persona into her hulk-like alter ego. She entered the fourth set with only 12 kills.
The Mariners’ defense at the net had a lot to do with her slow start. Junior opposite Natalia Ackerman, junior middle blocker Emilia Jeffe and senior outside hitter Jillian Rodriguez made life tough on the Knights, meeting their hitters in the sky and recording 10 combined blocks.
Ackerman’s stuff block on Strah midway through the first set drew oohhs and aahhs from the capacity crowd at Watsonville High, and solidified Saturday’s meeting as another classic between the longtime rivals.
It also forced Soquel senior setter Quinn Rocha to start feeding freshman outside hitter Ciara Cantlen to alleviate some the pressure on Strah.
The 6-foot Cantlen brought a balance to the Knights’ attack, and gave Aptos problems from both the outside and inside. She finished with a game-high 28 kills and added 11 digs and two aces.
Rodriguez, a Long Beach State commit, and sophomore outside hitter Peyton Dueck, a Cal Poly-SLO commit, finished with 14 kills apiece for Aptos. Ackerman added 10 and Jeffe chipped in seven, but the Mariners had trouble keeping pace when they weren’t winning the majority of the 50-50 balls with their hustle.
“I think they put a lot of pressure on us that match, and it kind of pushed us out of our system a little bit,” said Aptos head coach Lake Merchen. “It put is into an area where we weren’t super comfortable playing.”
Aptos will have a few days to lick its wounds before it begins the California Interscholastic Federation NorCal playoffs.
The Mariners will find out who, where and when they will play on Sunday. The Knights, too, will advance to the regional playoffs.
“We’re just going to try to go game by game, but we want to take it all the way if we can,” Ackerman said.