Lawdy that’s loud!
When the swing of Sacred Heart Prep outside hitter Elena Radeff connects, it sounds like a sonic boom. But going up against the clutch blocking of Carmel, even Radeff’s mightiest swings were getting denied early in Thursday’s Central Coast Section Division IV volleyball semifinals at Notre Dame-Belmont.
But top-seeded Sacred Heart Prep (23-10 overall) demonstrated the diverse attack head coach Ali Magner has preached all season, overcoming a 6-point deficit in Game 1 to sweep No. 4 Carmel (19-14) by scores of 25-23, 25-18, 25-18 and return to the CCS Division IV championship match for the third time in four years.
“I think it’s really special for this team,” Radeff said. “We started and we were down by a few. But then I think, as a team, we were really able to make in-game adjustments to come back the way we needed to to take that game against another really strong team. … And we’re excited for the championship game.”
The CCS scoring leader — 435 kills, 5.4 kills per set, according to MaxPreps.com — Radeff still finished with a match-high 13 kills. But Carmel blockers Isabella Daste and Karoline Ruiz were giving her fits early on, helping the Lady Padres run up a 20-16 lead.
But the Gators’ attack was finding a rhythm. Junior outside hitter Sofie Wheeler had three of her six match kills in the early going of the opening set. Sophomore setter Millie Muir converted on an overpass mid-set to keep it close at 14-13. And then sophomore middle Sara Alnajjar got going, scoring three of four match kills in Game 1.
Alnajjar produced one of the most exemplary shots of the night. With SHP trailing 23-20, the sophomore swung wide to the right-side pin, while Radeff flanked left. Muir, looking to set from the middle, sensed the Carmel block keying on Radeff and opted for a back set to Alnajjar, who responded with a tight cross shot to exact the pivotal point.
“I think we’ve been really versatile,” Muir said. “Elena has definitely been one of our strongest hitters. But I think just mixing up our offense was definitely the key to this game.”
Radeff followed with a kill on a left-side fade to close it to 23-22, and junior middle Mele Langi got in on the action by putting down a free ball to tie it at 23. Freshman Iris O’Connor then stepped to the service line to stun Carmel, firing back-to-back aces to close out the opening-set win for the Gators.
SHP then jumped out to a 6-0 lead in Game 2 and never looked back, turning the tables by showing some serious blocking of its own. The Gators recorded four blocks in the second set, including two by Alnajjar.
“I feel like this was a breakthrough game for her,” Muir said. “She was very aggressive throughout the game. Her blocking was insane.”
In Game 3, Radeff teamed with senior opposite Reagan Smith (seven match kills, four in the closing set) to help break a 13-13 deadlock. The Gators went on a 7-0 run from there, and watching Radeff adjust to the Carmel block was a spectacle. Twice in row, the Gators kept the ball up despite Carmel put-backs on Radeff’s attacks; and twice in a row, Radeff responded by going right back to the left side, only getting more vertical leap to extend the apex of her swing over the top of the double block to find the floor.
“They definitely gave us a run for our money,” Muir said. “But she really mixed up her shots and that was really the key to our success.”
Muir finished with six kills, three blocks and a team-high 13 digs. Radeff and senior libero Evelyn Sutton finished with nine digs apiece.
The Gators benefitted from a tactical switch to a 6-2 offense, something they do on occasion against tougher defenses. Junior setter Sarah Lin paired with Muir to wrestle with the complexities of the attack. But this was one of the things that helped turn the tide midway through Game 1, according to Magner.
“We’ve worked on a lot of new systems in the last couple weeks and we’re implementing them,” Magner said. “Slow and steady wins the race.”
Lin pitched in with the most celebrated shot of the night. With SHP leading 23-17 in the final set, Lin — who entered the night with four kills on the year — sent a top-spin return from behind the attack line that found the floor to force match point. It was an earned moment, as Lin had prolonged the rally on the previous return by lunging across the sideline for a diving dig.
Even more fun to watch, though, was Lin’s reaction to converting the kill, as Radeff and senior defensive specialist Leia Bonifacio both called her out with finger points as Lin celebrated with a spirited fist-pump.
“She has the heart of a lion,” Magner said.
SHP now advances to the CCS Division IV championship match Saturday to face No. 3 Harker. Time and place are yet to be determined. The Gators last won a CCS title in 2012.
In other CCS volleyball matches:
The No. 4 Lady Scots (21-12) were eliminated with a four-set loss 21-25, 25-23, 25-13, 25-19 to No. 1 Los Gatos (26-8).
Los Gatos advances to the championship match to face No. 6 Gunn.
No. 2 Aragon (25-10) knocked off PAL foe, No. 6 Woodside (15-20) by scores of 25-20, 25-23, 25-16.
The Lady Dons will now face No. 1 Christopher in the Division II title game Saturday at a time and place to be determined. Christopher (24-2) needed five sets to dispatch No. 5 Hillsdale (19-12) by scores of 19-25, 25-14, 25-10, 21-25, 15-13.
No. 1 Burlingame (22-11) had little trouble with No. 5 El Camino (20-2), sending the Lady Colts to a 25-23, 25-14, 25-2 defeat.
The Panthers move into the DIII title match to face No. 3 Aptos at a time a place to be determined.
No. 6 The Nueva School (20-7) ousted No. 2 Crystal Springs (22-6), by scores of 25-23, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23. The Mavericks now face top-seeded Mt. Madonna (16-8) for the Division V title Saturday at a time and place to be determined.