APTOS — Somehow, someway, the Aptos High Mariners are still alive.
Aptos would not let its bid for a fifth straight Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League title die, coming back to steal the final two sets and a pivotal 25-18, 19-25, 17-25, 25-21, 15-13 league win from the visiting Soquel High Knights.
The Mariners (8-7, 8-2) on Thursday night erased a 17-11 deficit in the fourth set and willed themselves back from down 10-7 in the winner-take-all final set to stay in the title hunt and throw another hurdle in front of the Knights’ (11-5, 7-3) championship hopes.
“Coach was saying this was everything — this was for league — and we had to give everything right now,” said senior opposite Madeline Smith.
The Mariners received clutch performances from several players. Junior outside hitter Jillian Rodriguez hammered down a team-high 16 kills and also made 13 digs and Smith, a lefty, provided a nice foil to her on the other side with seven kills.
Senior middle blocker Abbi Saxton had eight momentum-shifting kills and two blocks and freshman libero Peyton Dueck led the team with 18 digs.
Senior Dani Hewitt and junior Chloe Manor split the setting duties and combined for 33 assists, while the former also made 12 digs.
Senior outside hitter Dana Foley also had a massive impact down the stretch, finding the hardwood with one of her four aces during the game-four comeback.
“[Foley] came in and filled in what was missing,” said Aptos head coach Ashley Tennant. “She had the look on her face that said ‘we’re not done.’”
Smith said the rest of the team fed off that energy and it helped them pull through what was their toughest test of the season so far.
“That’s where we thrive, in a powerful environment where we know we’re supported by our teammates,” Smith said. “I think the way we played as a team in those last five points, where we were pushing really hard and supporting the crap out of each other, that was the most intense we’ve ever played. Girls that are usually not loud were screaming their heads off. We had everyone working together.”
And they possibly had some luck on their side, too.
With Aptos up 14-13 in the final set, sophomore outside hitter Sam Strah hit a cut shot that floated over the Mariners’ block and across the court toward the opposite line in front of the Aptos bench. The ball was called out by the side judge and eventually confirmed by both referees.
Most of the Mariners quickly stormed the court after the ball hit the ground but a few stood around waiting for the final word from the referees.
The Knights’ players, fans and head coach Jeanine Haldi all pleaded for a different call for a few moments but to no avail.
The referees had made up their minds.
They called it out.
“I think that it’s up to the ref’s discretion and they made their choice,” said Smith, who said she did not get a good look at the play. “Whether that ball was in or not, I think we deserve the win even though Soquel played a great game.”
Hewitt was more confident from her viewpoint on the Mariners’ side of the court.
“I saw it hit out,” Hewitt said. “I was standing right there.”
Added Tennant, who was just a couple feet from where the ball hit: “I truly felt like it was missed long but I totally understand not wanting it to come down to where there could be room for judgement.”
Aptos now sits alone in second place of the league standings behind Harbor High (12-6, 9-1), which on Tuesday handed Soquel its second league loss of the year. The Mariners host the Pirates on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
With the end-of-season tournament gone, Tuesday will be the closest thing to a championship match the SCCAL will see this season.
Win, and the Mariners control their destiny the rest of the way.
Lose, and they’ll have to rely on the rest of the league for help in order to earn, at best, a share of their fifth consecutive SCCAL title.
“Harbor’s a really different team than Soquel,” Hewitt said, “but I think we have enough skill to beat them.”
Aptos grabbed the early momentum by winning the opening set but Soquel quickly battled its way back into the match in the second set behind its dynamic duo of senior outside hitter Maggie Walters and Strah, whom combined for 43 kills, 55 digs and six aces.
The Mariners were also not helping themselves by committing several backbreaking errors during the latter portion of both the second and third set.
The fourth set started off with more of the same, as Soquel led until Aptos slowly started chipping away at its six-point lead with kills from senior opposite Lauren Picone and Smith. With every point, the Mariners and their dozens of fans started gaining more and more confidence. Like a monsoon, Aptos forced a deciding fifth set by closing the fourth on a 14-4 run.
The Mariners again had to come from behind in the fifth but they did, eventually overtaking the Knights on a service error.
Two points and a controversial call later, Aptos had survived and given itself a chance at defending its title.
“It’s a good feeling to still have a chance,” Tennant said. “I’m not ready to hear that we don’t have a chance right now. I’m just happy that we’re able to leave that door open and have that opportunity.”