Volleyball championship’s pivotal moments won’t appear on any scorecard

Fullerton, Calif. – Saturday’s CIF girls volleyball championship match between SCCS and Upland Christian was a marathon. Over the span of more than two hours, the Cardinals and Eagles fought through five grueling games, forged 19 ties and traded the lead 12 times.

It wasn’t until the 200th point that Cardinal senior Abigail Walker finally settled matters with a just-how-you-draw-it-up spike past the Eagles’ middle blocker. The ball crashed down and simultaneously, a sea of red-clad fans and players jumped up.

Two-hundred points to win it. Two-hundred magnificent points tacked onto the end of a 15-match winning streak dating back to Sept. 23, when the team was staring down the barrel of an 8-7 record.

Two-hundred points to do what no girls’ program had ever accomplished at SCCS and what no girls’ volleyball team from the volleyball-rich Santa Clarita Valley had ever accomplished.

Two-hundred points to a CIF-Southern Section title.

But for all the drama that unfolded during those 200 points in Fullerton on Saturday, the pivotal moment of the match—and of the season—actually occurred in the blink of an eye between two of those points.

The moment came at the end of Game 3. The Cardinals had just lost their second game in a row, this one in the worst way imaginable: first by blowing a game-point opportunity at 24-23, second by losing the decisive point on a blown call.

With SCCS trailing 24-25, junior Kylie Brown hit what appeared to be a winning shot that sent the ball skipping off of an Eagle defender on its way out of bounds. There was an audible “second boom” and the ball clearly change trajectory midflight. However, the referee didn’t see it that way, and awarded the point, and Game 3, to the Eagles.

The Cardinal players were in shock. They pleaded with the ref as the Eagles raced jubilantly to their bench, just one win away from winning the match. Some of the Cardinal bench was in tears as the team finally made its way to coach Darcy Brown, who had already dropped off her rotation at the scorer’s table.

Everyone in red was complaining—the players and most definitely the SCCS fans. Everyone, that is, except Darcy Brown.

As the players came over, arms gesticulating, eyes pleading, mouths moving, Brown made perhaps the greatest and most important coaching move of her 21-year SCCS career.

She waved them all off.

The motion was almost too quick to catch, except that her players got the message. With the flick of the wrist and the slightest shake of the head, coach Brown became for her players exactly what they needed her to be … a rock.

By refusing to let her players camp on the injustice, she removed from them the convenience of an excuse. She also wrested their focus away from what just happened and returned it to where it needed to be, on Game 4.

Her daughter, Kylie, who led SCCS with 33 kills—19 of them in the match’s final two games—understood the message completely.

“After they didn’t call that touch I said, ‘There’s no way we’re losing this match in four,’” Kylie Brown said. “‘There’s no way we’re losing it five, either.’ I said, ‘Guys, let’s win this in five.’”

The team seemed to find a better version of itself in Game 4. After struggling through too many missed serves and errant kill attempts in games 1 (25-17), 2 (19-25) and 3 (24-26), SCCS put it all together in a 25-13 shellacking of the Eagles in Game 4.

So in control were the Cardinals from the moment of coach Brown’s “wave off,” that even when they fell behind 1-4 in Game 5, the outcome of an SCCS championship (a 15-11 win) still felt inevitable.

The official scorecard will no doubt point to a cast of heroes that came together to capture the school’s first-ever CIF-SS volleyball crown. It will note Brown’s 33 kills and 16 digs, Samantha Villapando’s 44 assists, Walker’s 9 kills and Tiffany Shroyer’s 21 digs.

It will have recorded Jessi McCarty’s 10 kills, though it will not mention that the junior outside hitter saved the best game of her career for when it mattered most.

It will note that senior Beth Hovey (who transferred from Hart High two years ago) recorded a service ace and a couple of blocks, but perhaps not that the ace came in Game 5 when the score stood at 4-5 Upland, or that the block came against the Eagles’ best hitter, Rachel Holmes.

The scorecard will note that junior reserve Sidnie Brenner was 3-for-3 in serves delivered. But it won’t record that she hadn’t served one time during the playoffs, and that she was asked to step into the service rotation in Game 5 to relieve a struggling teammate.

It will record digs, but not the “did-I-just-see-that?” rescue pulled off by Shroyer and Lauren Gallagher at a crucial spot in the match—the kind of play that sucks the wind out of the opposing team.

It will record that the Cardinals won in five games, but not the long hours of summer conditioning and weight-room work that gave them the strength and stamina they needed to do it.

And it will definitely not record coach Brown’s dismissal of anything and everything that didn’t matter when her team was teetering on the precipice of panic.

But her players noted it, and it’s not a lesson they are likely to forget.

“We were just mentally stronger in that [fourth] game,” is how Villapando described the team’s sudden reversal of fortune. “We knew we had to stay strong and not let anything get in our heads.”

That kind of focus doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is born out of a culture that tends to result in wins … a lot of wins.

Even championships.

CIF State Volleyball Tournament: round 1 pairing/venue announced

The Cardinals girls varsity volleyball team, winners of the CIF-SS Division 5AA championship, will host Buckley (Sherman Oaks) in Round 1 of the CIF State Tournament on Tuesday.

Buckley (11-6) advanced to the Division 5AA semifinals before falling to Upland Christian, 1-3.

Date: Tuesday, Nov. 25

Game time: 6 p.m.

Venue: SCCS gym

Click here to the view the entire CIF State Division 5 bracket 

Images from the volleyball CIF championship match