SACRED HEART CATHEDRAL — A year ago, Sacred Heart Cathedral senior outside hitter Lauren Sera’s mother passed away. She doesn’t talk about it much. There are some days that are tougher than others.
The Fightin’ Irish’s head coach, Margi Beima, has given her time, when she’s needed it. On Wednesday, with Sacred Heart Cathedral in the semifinals of the West Catholic Athletic League, she needed a day. She got it. The Irish beat up on Presentation in a 3-0 sweep.
On Thursday, Sera returned, and had arguably the best game of her career in a tense, five-set finals match-up against rival St. Ignatius. Dueling with a middle blocking duo of Duke-bound Wildcats senior Lizzie Fleming and freshman Claire Untalan, Sera notched 24 kills, as the Irish came away with a 3-2 win to secure the tournament title.
“She just has the heart of a champion,” Beima said. “She does it all for her team. It’s not about her at all. She just, she is a selfless player. She always gives everything she has.”
Despite hitting just .206 on the night, Sera saw 38.1 percent of her attacks result in kills, adding 20 digs — second on the team to setter Alden Standley (23) — and just three defensive errors.
“I’m still dealing with my own stuff,” Sera said. “With all my teammates, we really help each other up … Through all my ups and downs, it’s been a roller coaster. They’ve always been supportive. They haven’t questioned anything, and my coach, coach Margi, she’s really good on being in-tune with yourself.”
After sweeping the season series over St. Ignatius, 3-2 and 3-1, the Irish had stormed into the final, going 9-1 to win the regular season league title.
St. Ignatius, which went 6-5 in WCAL play this season, fell in their first quarterfinal set to Valley Christian, before winning three straight sets on the back of Fleming, Mackenzie Honey and Megan Lucey. In their semifinal, the Wildcats scored a tough 3-2 win over Archbishop Mitty in San Jose, knocking out a Monarchs team that had played in every WCAL title game since at least 2012, and lost just once, to Sacred Heart Cathedral in 2014.
The Irish and Wildcats split the first two sets on Thursday, and Sacred Heart Cathedral cruised to a 25-20 win in the third.
The fourth set, though, ramped up the intensity as the gym filled with student athletes from other sports, and more and more fans and well-wishers on both sides.
St. Ignatius pulled ahead 8-5 in the third. Sera came up with a kill off of senior captain and outside hitter Megan Lucey to break serve, and then came up with a block on Honey as Sacred Heart Cathedral scored five straight points to take the lead. After a service error broke serve, and Fleming blocked a Skylar Canady swing, giving the Wildcats a 10-9 lead.
Sera came right back and returned a Megan Yu volley to the back right corner for a game-tying kill. That started a stretch of five straight kills for Sera, interrupted only by a Fleming point, to give the Irish a 14-11 lead.
After a Canady swing ended up in the net, tying the set at 19-19, Sera was blocked twice in a row by Untalan and Fleming, before finally finishing with a kill to bring the student section to its feet. Another block and a kill by Fleming ended the set at 27-25, as St. Ignatius tied the match at two games apiece.
“We knew Lizzie was going to be a threat on both sides,” Beima said of the 6-foot-2 Fleming, who unofficially finished with 21 kills, giving her 450 on the season. “I don’t know what her numbers are, but they have to be through the roof. She was phenomenal. You’re not going to stop a player like that, but you try to dig a few balls here and there, try to get a few touches on some swings so your defense can run it down. We were able to get a few tonight.”
In the fifth and final set, Sera was blocked on two straight tries, the first by Emily McCarthy and Lucey, and the next by the familiar duo of Untalan and Fleming. Down 13-11 after an attack error, Sacred Heart Cathedral got a key dink from Sophie Seljeseth, who had missed the semifinals with an illness. That broke serve, but Fleming came right back with a spike to put St. Ignatius up 14-12, and on the doorstep of winning the tournament title, but the Irish fought off two championship points.
“She’s just getting her feet under her, and she had a crucial kill for us in game five,” Beima said of Seljeseth, a 5-foot-8 junior. “We had to run it down, and it went through the block and off the hands.”
A swing into the net broke serve back to the Irish. Sera tossed up her serve, and after a lengthy volley, Sera set with a bump for Megan Lenn, but Lenn couldn’t get it to fall. Sera came up with three straight digs to keep the volley alive, trying to set up Lenn and Canady, who finished with 12 and 22 kills, respectively. She finally got a dig to Standley, who set up Lenn for the game-tying 14th point.
Sera served again, and Lenn again finished with a kill on the outside. After a time out, Lenn and Seljeseth came up with the game-ending block. Lenn finished a game-high plus-10, despite hitting just .135.
“Greatest feeling in the world,” Sera said. “It’s still really exciting, because we still have a long way to go.”
Next Thursday, the CIF Central Coast Section will meet to seed teams for the section playoffs. Oct. 27 will mark the opening round. At 28-6 on the season, the Irish figure to be an early favorite.
“Our kids really came together, and they know all the girls across the net from them,” Beima said. “Yes, it’s a rivalry, but we didn’t want to share the league title. It was a dogfight, and we knew it would be that.”