Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the Division III state championship would be on Friday at 4 p.m. The Division III state title game will be on Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
ATHERTON, Calif. — Mariko Tanaka closed her eyes, fell to her knees and clenched her fists as the entire Lowell Cardinals volleyball team piled on top of her.
After tipping over the deciding point in a 3-2 win over No. 1-seed Atherton-Sacred Heart Prep, the Cardinals senior let out a scream.
Four years ago, amid family drama and uncertainty about her athletic future, she tried out for volleyball, a sport she’d never played. On Tuesday, the Lowell team captain racked up 17 kills to topple the No. 1-seeded Gators, earning the Cardinals to the first Northern California title in program history, and a trip to the state Division III final.
“She was our league MVP, and I think every championship, every game that we had to go to, she always got that last point, and the team trusts so much in her,” said head coach Kelly Sung. “It’s just awesome to see.”
“This is still so surreal to me,” said Tanaka, clutching the NorCal title plaque.
Lowell (30-7), the No. 6 seed in the Northern California bracket, came back from two sets down to beat Sacred Heart Prep 27-29, 21-25, 25-20, 25-22, 15-11.
The bigger and stronger Gators (26-11) — led by 501-kill senior Elena Radeff — had a gym full of supporters behind them, including a rowdy student section that sang and chanted loudly as the first set went extra points, despite the Cardinals playing mostly out of system.
“That’s just a tribute to our ball control,” Sung said. “At practice, we always practice not being in system, and having to fight through that.”
The crowd got louder as Sacred Heart Prep went up 24-17 in the second set, until a kill by junior Eliana Brown (one of her 10 on the night) stopped the bleeding and gave the Cardinals a chance.
“All the cheers that they were doing, that really got us going,” Tanaka said.
A Heather Liu Kill and a Tanaka kill cut the lead to four, and a Reagan Smith kill went out of bounds, right in front of the silenced Gators student section, but a Mele Langi kill through a block by Liu and Tanaka put the visitors one set away from elimination.
Sung reminded her team that the great thing about volleyball is that each set starts at 0-0. They still had a chance.
“It was really hard to start off down, which I feel we always do,” Tanaka said. “We always have to fight, which we’re really good at. We did have first-game jitters. Kelly just said, ‘We’re still in this.’ Honestly, I think everyone just turned something on in their head, and we started working so much harder putting balls away.”
The third set belonged to junior Kenedi Edmunds, who hit .444 with four of her 12 kills, along with three digs and a block, coming up with a cross-court smash to put Lowell up 24-19 and then a block with Qi on set point for the Cardinals’ first win of the night.
Down 18-16 in the fourth set, Lowell got a tip-over by Tanaka to close the gap to one, and a swing error by Smith evened things up. Four straight points by the Cardinals — including a Liu kill, a Qi block and a tip-over by Kimberly Yee got Lowell ahead, and a swing error by the Gators evened up the match at two wins apiece.
Tanaka set the tone for the final set, notching the first kill. She punched the air and let out a yell. Four years ago, she thought herself a basketball player, until she realized that basketball couldn’t help her deal emotionally with family troubles. Her mother urged her to try out for volleyball, and Sung took her because of her height, and her natural ability.
Sung took a special interest in Tanaka and added her to the club team she coached, tutoring her in the finer points of the game.
“I realized I really loved the sport, and Kelly took me under her wing,” Tanaka said. “I decided that I needed to find a passion. Volleyball was there for me.”
Added to varsity her sophomore year, Tanaka became one of the most effective middle blockers in the league, earning second-team All-Academic Athletic Association honors for the first division.
After Tanaka’s opening kill, Lowell raced out to a 13-7 lead on a kill by Liu. A block by Tanaka brought the Cardinals within a point of the win, as she stomped her feet and punched the air.
Sacred Heart Prep scored three straight points before Tanaka stepped into the middle, leaped up and tipped the ball over on a backhand.
“I still have not processed it,” Tanaka said afterward. “As a senior, I would love to end my season with a bang, and I really wanted to make that last point, but that team is really good.”
Lowell now heads to the state title match, on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Santiago Canyon College, to face South Pasadena, which beat Palm Desert 3-1 on Wednesday night.
After that, Tanaka — bound for Wesleyan College — and the three other seniors — Yee, setter and captain Kailee Bumanglag and middle blocker Pearl Vermilyea — will move on, but an underclassman-heavy team that’s won at least a share of the AAA title the past two seasons will be a favorite to win another, and to make another deep playoff run.
“We’re going to have a great squad coming back,” Sung said.