The college Red Devils have gone as far as they can, literally and figuratively.
Their season finally ended Tuesday night, 192 miles from campus, in a hard-fought four-set loss to the top-seeded Clovis North Broncos in the California Interscholastic Federation Division II Northern California Championship ( CIF) (19-25). , 20-25, 25-16, 24-26).
Even after dropping the first two sets in a best-of-five game for only the second time this season, University (28-7) made the Broncos sweat. The Devils took a 15-6 lead in set 3 and led up to 10 over a Kinnari Atluru en route to a 25-16 win, and tied Clovis North (28-10) pound for pound in the fourth set, tying the Broncos at 22 and 24.
For a moment, the visiting Devils believed they had taken a 25-24 lead in the fourth set on a spike from Atluru that landed just along the boundary. Despite appeals from the spirited contingent of University fans who had made the long trip to suburban Fresno, the umpires could not come to a conclusion and ultimately decided to replay the point.
“I was fighting for that point,” Atluru said. “Calls don’t always go your way.”
University’s next two shots went long. Game over, season over.
“I just tried to move on to the next point, and unfortunately I made a few mistakes,” Atluru said.
Arriving painstakingly short after a three-and-a-half-hour bus journey understandably left a sour taste in the Devils’ mouths, but it didn’t cloud their view.
“We didn’t expect to go this far,” Atluru said. “We’re a small private school in San Francisco playing giant public schools here.”
The university, with an enrollment of approximately 420 students, was the smallest of Northern California’s 16 schools in the Division II field. The Devils’ four state tournament opponents had at least 1,750 students, and Clovis North’s enrollment exceeds 2,500.
In their previous three matches, the Red Devils had managed to push their opponents out of their comfort zone by playing them in a small gymnasium, and University used the packed house and low roof to create an insurmountable advantage over field. On Tuesday night, they were the ones in uncharted territory, playing in a gymnasium so large it has an arena-style center hanging scoreboard.
“There was something fun about being on the road today,” said head coach Bob Hillman. “It felt like we were doing something big, traveling to Fresno to play in a giant gymnasium.”
The team bus left San Francisco at noon, and the ride was unforgettable, with players singing along the way.
In addition to playing in unfamiliar quarters, the Devils were playing below their full roster. Yes, they had all seven members of their rotation, but Mila Chan was battling constant cramps after being sick last week. Sophomore Dani Lee was ill on Tuesday, and although she ended up playing, it clearly affected her performance.
These hurdles helped put University in a hole after the first two sets. Clovis North won nine of the last 13 points in Set 2 to put the Devils on the brink of elimination before University staged an inspired final rally.
“I think it was just sheer determination,” Atluru said. “We just said, ‘We’re winning this set. I don’t care if we sacrifice our bodies for this, we win. We did it, and I think that’s all you can ask.
Tuesday marked the University’s fourth appearance in a Northern California volleyball final, and the school’s first since 2004. The previous three appearances were in Division V under the old system based on CIF registrations.
“I don’t know if we could have competed harder tonight or this season,” Hillman said.
There are plenty of reasons for the Bay Counties League West Division champions and North Coast Section (NCS) Division 3 runners-up to be optimistic about the future. They only graduated three seniors, and only one, Lucy Welch, was part of Hillman’s seven-man primary rotation.