Setback provides springboard for Sacred Heart Cathedral entering state volleyball final

The Sacred Heart Cathedral girls’ volleyball team entered its Central Coast Section championship showdown against Valley Christian of San Jose on a roll.

They had defeated these same Warriors two weeks earlier in the West Catholic Athletic League semifinals before unseating perennial powerhouse Mitty in the final. That wrapped up the first league championship in program history.

And yet, in that Nov. 22 rematch, with the CCS title on the line, Valley Christian dismantled the Irish in four games. It was SHC’s third loss of the season, and it stung.

“It put our feet back on solid ground,” Irish coach Margi Beima said. “Valley was very good, and we didn’t answer. We fought, but we weren’t gritty.”

Said Madison Murtagh, a senior outside hitter headed to USF: “We came in with confidence, but when we lost in CCS, it got shaken. That was good for us. In the following weeks, we worked hard and kept determined. We had to work just as hard as we’d been doing.” Beima stressed a return to the mental fortitude that has coursed through the Irish during this season. Though not the most physically gifted side, SHC wins with supreme technical skill, coated in toughness and grit.

“This is a really coachable group that, when we work, we see almost immediate improvement,” said Beima. “They pay attention, learn and implement what we want to accomplish. I’m really proud of them in that regard.”

Reclamation came Tuesday. The Irish traveled back to Valley Christian, this time taking down the Warriors in a five-set thriller for the NorCal Division III championship. With that title in hand, SHC now turns toward Saddleback Valley Christian, its opponent in Saturday’s state championship.

“That loss to Valley Christian in the CCS final fired us up,” senior setter Amanda Santa Maria said. “It wasn’t the end of our season, it wasn’t the end of the world. We focused on winning NorCal and going to state.”

The Irish celebrated their NorCal title on Tuesday night, but by Wednesday afternoon, they were back at work. Quick turnarounds are nothing new. After the loss in the CCS final, SHC had just one practice before NorCal play began. Beima was happy with this latest response.

“Our kids were exhausted, but they were sharp and communicating,” she said.

There are no captains on this SHC team, but the players enjoy that dynamic. In huddles, anyone can speak up. That’s exactly what’s happened in the past two matches, when the Irish have twice trailed 2-1 heading into the fourth game.

“It’s the same thing we say over and over: Keep focusing on the next set,” Santa Maria said. “It doesn’t matter what’s happened before. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the net. Other teams might be bigger, but that doesn’t really affect us. We just stay tough.”

“We have strong voices from each position,” said Murtagh, whose 304 kills leads the team. “We always have leadership to fall back upon. We’ve been tested and had to show our toughness. Over the season, we’ve gotten a lot better at it.”

The itinerary for the rest of this week? A couple more practices, then a trip down to Santiago Canyon College in Orange for a shot at the first state title in program history.

“This is the fun time of year,” said Beima. “I feel so grateful.”

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