APTOS — The bags were packed, the vans were ready and the hotels were booked.
How quickly things change.
Up 2-1 in the match, the Cabrillo College Seahawks looked ready to make their 10th straight trip to the California Community College Athletic Association state tournament, but the West Valley College Vikings accomplished the unbelievable.
With their backs against the wall versus the top team in Northern California, the No. 8-seeded Vikings (17-9) hit harder, moved faster and played with an uninhibited confidence resembling that of the two-time state champion Seahawks (26-3).
The result? A stunning 25-22, 18-25, 16-25, 25-21, 17-15 win over the top-seed in the Northern California CCCAA playoffs on their home court.
“I can’t believe it,” said West Valley head coach Armen Zakarian.
And the Seahawks, winners of their last 19 matches before Saturday, couldn’t either. As they walked off the court, some Cabrillo players covered their faces with their jerseys, others couldn’t help but to hang their heads in frustration and a few stared deeply at the scoreboard wondering where it all went wrong.
“We’ve put ourselves in these situations a couple of times, and I think the biggest difference this time was we knew it could be our last,” said Cabrillo first-year head coach Kelsee Montagna. “We got a little tense.”
West Valley, too, felt the jitters in crunch time, as Cabrillo stormed back from down 10-5 in the fifth set to take the lead. The Seahawks shook off a pair of match points down the stretch, and held a match point of their own at 15-14. But the Vikings, drawing inspiration from a drill in practice dubbed “refuse to lose,” rallied for three straight points, including Mapuhola Sekona’s match-winning strike through the outstretched arms of a pair of Cabrillo defenders.
“That was our mentality the entire game, we just refuse to lose,” said Sekona, an All-American sophomore outside hitter who finished with a team-high 16 kills. "If we're going to lose, I rather lose going out strong and not being afraid to hit into their block. We had that confidence."
West Valley will join Fresno City College, Gavilan College and American River College at the state tournament as the four Northern California representatives. Defending state champion Irvine Valley College, Cypress College, El Camino College and Bakersfield College will represent Southern California when the eight teams meet at Solano College in Fairfield on Nov. 30-Dec. 2 for the state tournament.
It will be West Valley’s first trip to state since 2006.
Cabrillo, which dominated the community college volleyball landscape in Northern California during former coach Gabby Houston Neville’s nine-year stint, has been a big reason for the program’s extended drought.
The Seahawks bounced the Vikings from the Northern California playoffs last season. They also knocked them out of the beach volleyball playoffs in the spring.
“They’ve been a thorn in our side, we just haven’t been able to get past them,” Zakarian said. “With good reason, they’re a really good team. For us to do what we did…I thought we stuck to our guns. Big players made big plays in big moments.”
Cabrillo had twice beaten West Valley during the regular season en route to the program’s 12th consecutive conference title, but the Seahawks caught the injury bug since their last meeting in late October.
Sophomore right side Paige Schieferstein was in a walking boot after Saturday’s match, and 6-foot-2 sophomore middle blocker Lina Fiso, the Coast Conference North division M.V.P., had her right hip heavily taped and spent the better half of the night on the bench receiving impromptu treatment from her teammates.
Fiso’s injury hampered the Seahawks’ usually potent inside-out offensive attack, and allowed West Valley to key in on sophomore outside hitters Kylie Kvam, Jolie Samuelson and Ellie Cary. The hard-hitting trio still managed to do enough to give Cabrillo a chance to win, as the Seahawks held a late lead in every set.
After blowing a 22-21 advantage in the first, Cabrillo lived up to its billing as the top seed in the Northern California playoffs in the second and third. Kvam, Schieferstein and Samuelson peppered in strikes from the outside while Fiso and fellow sophomore middle blocker Amanda Meserve kept the Vikings honest with thunderous blows in the middle. That powerful mix led Cabrillo out of a 9-3 hole in the fourth set, but a couple of crucial uncharacteristic errors near match point forced a winner-take-all fifth set.
A few more Cabrillo mistakes and a handful of big plays from West Valley during the final points of the deciding set put an end to the Seahawks’ season.
“I think in the fourth set we let West Valley get the momentum. It allowed them to get into a groove and we went back on our heels a little bit,” Montagna said. “From that point on, West Valley was out-hustling us.”
Montagna, a state champion with Cabrillo as a player in 2013, took the reigns of the volleyball program after Houston Neville jumped over to UC Santa Cruz in early August, and inherited a talented group of players that were fresh off a third-place finish in last year’s CCCAA state tournament. She also inherited the program’s state-title-or-bust expectations, something she admitted was a lofty yet achievable goal for a shorthanded bunch.
Despite falling short, Montagna said she wouldn’t have changed much about her first year at the helm.
“I only have 10, and I would not want any other 10 by my side — they know that,” Montagna said. “For my first year, I couldn’t be more happy. They really welcomed me in...Words don't really explain how privileged I was to have them."