PALO ALTO — Faced with elimination in Tuesday’s Central Coast Section Open Division Semifinal, the Sacred Heart Cathedral volleyball team used technique to counter St. Francis’ size and power to escape with a five-set victory (14-25, 15-25, 25-17, 25-16, 15-11).
Fueled by a resurgent Skylar Canady, who went from looking shaky at best in her first two sets to dominating as the match went on, the Fightin’ Irish kept their hopes of a repeat Open Division championship alive by recovering from an early deficit in the fourth set, then dominating the fifth to show why they were West Catholic Athletic League champions.
“We’ve been through so much adversity these past two years and we’ve dealt with situations like this,” said Canady, who led Sacred Heart Cathedral (26-5) with 20 kills, including the match point. “I think we got a little comfortable in the first two sets and underestimated how much energy they would bring.”
Not only did the Lancers bring energy, they brought five six-footers to the table and showed why they had beaten the Irish in two of their three regular-season meetings — the Milpitas Spikefest championship and the first of their two WCAL contests.
With middle blocker Kirra Kellerman leading the way, St. Francis (26-12) made the Irish look timid in the opening set and even dominated the second set with Kellerman spending the bulk of the frame on the bench. A front-line hitter only, Kellerman came out as the Lancers rotated through their roster, and with sophomores Lauren Scheffler and Madison Pietsch controlling the match, she wasn’t even needed as her spot cycled around.
A pair of Canady errors gave St. Francis a 5-3 lead, and the fourth-seeded Lancers went up 15-9 on a Gabbie Silva ace. Even a heroic dig by Alden Standley wouldn’t stop the momentum as Pietsch finished the point with a kill to make it 17-10 St. Francis, and Kellerman delivered the final point to give her team a two-set advantage.
Things finally started to click for SHC in the third set, as Standley’s soft touch gave them a 9-5 lead, part of an 11-2 run that helped the Irish win the set with ease. Things wouldn’t be as graceful in the fourth, though.
Allison Ko started things off with an ace, and the Lancers jumped out to a 6-2 lead as Scheffler seemed to only get better as the match went on. That’s when Canady sprung to life, with a kill on a point that would have all but left the Irish for dead had they come up short.
Canady would go on to tie the set at seven as the Irish took five of the next six points, but Sacred Heart Cathedral fell into a hole once again, as St. Francis took the next three, with Scheffler teaming up for a block with Soana Leaea and then delivering another solo kill to force head coach Margi Beima to call timeout.
“We had to stay patient, we had to stay tough and just keep working through it,” Beima said after her 509th career win. “It takes a lot of maturity to keep working through it and not roll over.”
Even when yet another long rally went to St. Francis on a Leaea block, the Irish wouldn’t falter. Canady tied it at 12 with a gentle drop over the net, then put her team ahead for the first time in the set with a more forceful kill. Nora Thompson deposited a ball right in the middle of all six Lancers to cap off an 8-1 run, and the Irish finally won a huge rally on a Canady spike to take a 17-13 lead.
“We were trying to distribute the ball but also go to those who were on and were getting kills for us,” the UCLA-bound senior said. “We did a good job distributing it to everyone so we weren’t so predictable. Everyone got a chance to swing, and it opened up a lot for our team.”
A Standley ace made it 21-14, and though the Lancers regained some semblance of leverage with a timeout and a point on a service fault, Sophie Seljeseth put things right back in her team’s hands with the most powerful of her six kills. Amaya Keiper forced a fifth set with one of her 11 kills, and the Irish rolled from there.
Canady and Thompson blocked Nunu Saulala for the fifth set’s second point, and Lancer head coach Michael Rubin was forced to call timeout after his team couldn’t return a Keiper serve. That timeout helped some, as a Pietsch kill and Sydney Peterson ace got St. Francis within 6-4, but the Lancers wouldn’t get any closer. Ashley Chan, who led the Irish with 22 digs, had an ace to make it 9-5, and Sarah Cheng put some filthy topspin on a kill to open up a five-point lead.
“Being a senior, it puts everything into perspective,” Cheng said. “This is my last season, and we’ve put our hearts into making it really count. In the last week, we’ve been working on tempo passing, which helped us speed up our offense and played a huge part in our win tonight.”
Tempo passing was especially present on Cheng’s point, and though the Lancers would get back within 13-10 on an error and a Maggie Curtis ace, the Irish were able to keep their much bigger and stronger foes on their toes, finishing things off as Canady delivered one final blast from the left side.
Sacred Heart Cathedral will play for the championship on Saturday night against second-seeded Mitty, a five-set winner over Menlo-Atherton. No time or location has been released yet, but the match will likely be played somewhere in the vicinity of Palo Alto.