Los Altos Snatches CIF Title in Thrilling Five-Game Set … For What It’s Worth

November 21, 2009
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A cluth of media, including the Trib's John Honnel and Fred Robledo, surrounded Katie Kirby and other players after the dramatic CIF match.

A clutch of media, including the Trib's John Honnell and Fred Robledo, surrounded Katie Kirby and other players after the dramatic CIF match.

Titles aren’t just important in royal places like England and The Netherlands where they have kings and queens. They’re also important in America. Put “Dr.” before your name, and the title connotes an extra level of learnedness, just as the initials “Ph.D.” do after it. In the corporate world, the titles “CEO” (chief executive officer) and president carry the most weight.

In high school, if you’re an athlete and team player, there’s only title you really covet, and that’s “CIF Champion.” While manhy crave it, few collect it and earn the right to use the title the rest of their lives.

That’s what was at stake Saturday morning at Cypress College as the Bonita girls’ volleyball team challenged the Los Altos Conquerors for the right to call themselves CIF champions. It’s not the piece of paper, certificate or trophy both teams were likely after, but the recognition that that they were their best team in CIF Division 3-AA, a public and personal acknowledgement that they had achieved all of their goals that they had set for themselves at the beginning of the season.

Clearly, the biggest crowd of the year knew the importance of the contest. There was local cable and more sportswriters than there are newspapers left. There was even an online newspaper from La Verne there.

Early in Game 1, there were six ties before the Conquerors edged ahead 12-11. After Los Altos pushed the lead to 16-12, when a ball floated to the rafters and fell back to the court untouched, Bonita coach Adriana Contreras called a timeout to try to get her players to refocus. It wouldn’t be enough. Los Altos coasted to a 25-16 win. While winning the opener was important, it was just one game. Three would be needed to claim the crown.

In Game 2, Bonita seized a 4-3 advantage on an Allie LaPierre kill, and twice stretched its early lead to four points, but Los Altos rallied to trail 14-13 when Contreras called timeout. On the next point, Los Altos tied the score, 14-14, but Bonita, which had regrouped, never let the Conquerors take the lead. A combination of kills from LaPierre, Victoria Dennis, Katie Kirby and Lauren Mierke and a twin block from Dennis and LaPierre gave Bonita a 25-21 victory. Los Altos had pulled within 20-19, but Bonita kept counterpunching to secure the win.

Timeouts, including this one here called by Coach Contreras, played a key role in gameday strategy.

Timeouts, including this one here called by Coach Contreras, played a key role in gameday strategy.

In Game 3, Los Altos bolted to a 4-0 lead and led 9-3, forcing Bonita to call an early timeout. With Macias and Russell leading the way, the Conquerors stretched their advantage to 13-5. Bonita put together a run of its own to pull within 13-9, forcing a timeout by Los Altos. Bonita kept working hard, serving, digging, blocking, and rotating, and, with key kills from LaPierre and Danielle Lines, caught the Conquerors at 16 and again at 18. Finally, the Bearcats edged ahead, 18-17, on a kill by Dennis. After Bonita extending the lead to 19-17, Los Altos called timeout. Off the break, LaPierre nailed another thunderous kill, and Bonita closed out the game, 25-18, marking an amazing comeback and, more important, giving the Bearcats a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five format.

One game away from a CIF crown, Bonita had Los Altos on the run. In Miramonte League competition, Bonita had twice defeated the Conquerors, and after winning the first but dropping the next two to their league rivals, the Conquerors’ had to be shaken, their ability to overcome the tenacious Bearcats seriously in doubt.

In Game 4, Los Altos staked itself to an early 4-2 lead, but kills by Kirby, Mierke and Dennis helped the Bearcats catch the Conquerors at 6. Bonita edged ahead 8-6, before Los Altos surged right back, catching the Bearcats at 8-8 and expanding its margin to 10-8. With Russell, Macias and Amanda Brown playing spiritedly, Los Altos stretched the lead to 18-12 and 19-13.  A Los Altos victory looked assured until the Bearcats roared back on a block by Dennis and Ashley Maxfeldt and kills by Kirby and Dennis, all while LaPierre was holding serve. At 20-20, Los Altos called timeout. The fans on both sides of the gym were roaring and rocking the gym.

Nothing could be taken for granted, not even player substutions such as this one between No. 11 Jennifer Popoff and Amanda Brown, who would go on to strike the match-winnikng point.

Nothing could be taken for granted, not even player substutions such as this one between No. 11 Jennifer Popoff and No. 49, Amanda Brown, who would go on to strike the match-winning point.

Out of the break, Bonita took the lead, 21-20. Los Altos tied it at 21 in what was one of the longest points of the match, testing the willpower and conditioning of both teams. A Macias ace and a Russell kill pushed the lead to 23-21. Bonita pulled within one, 23-22, after a service fault by Macias. Russell got another kill to make it 24-22, Kirby answered with her own smash to make the score 24-23. Then on its second set point, Los Altos prevailed, 25-23, forcing a dramatic Game 5, great for Hollywood scriptwriters, but death to anyone with real nerves and feelings.

The fans and backers of both teams kept shifting places in the stands, giving rise to a new medical term, “Restless Fan Syndrome.” One could only think what was going on inside the minds of the players on both sides, with the championship on the line. Would Bonita defeat Los Altos a third straight time in the season, or would Los Altos, humbled by Bonita in two earlier league losses finally get the best of its league rival? Many Los Altos players had told the media leading up to the match they clearly preferred playing the Bearcats. They wanted the grudge match. Were they just giving Bonita more bulletin board material or could they back up their talk? One fact was clear, nobody in the stands was leaving the gym.

In Game 5, Bonita bounced out in front, 1-0, on a Kirby kill, but Los Altos responded with kills by Brown, Russell, Brown again, then a drop shot by Erica Chavez to seize the lead 4-2. Los Altos expanded its lead to 10-4. Bonita’s two winners came on LaPierre kills. At 10-5, and after a Los Altos timeout, kills by Mierke and LaPierre and a great set by Jackie Campa for another LaPierre kill brought Bonita within two points, 10-8.

Los Altos responded with three straight points, one coming on a rocket by Russell. Bonita and Los Altos would then exchange points: Kill by Kirby, kill by Russell, kill by Kirby. But Bonita couldn’t afford to trade points as the winner of Game 5 would be the first team to reach 15, not 25, which had been the finish line for the first four games.

Leading 14-10 and a set point away from the championship, Los Altos called timeout. Then Brown, the Conquerors’ No. 49, whose numeral as the biggest on the court, elevated and got the kill, no doubt the biggest shot of the 6-foot-1 blocker’s life, to give Los Altos, a 15-10 win and a 3-2 championship over Bonita.

It was a stunning series of games, with both teams treating the fans to a morning of amazing athleticism and skill. The $8 CIF adult entry fee was far too little; for the fans, it was like stealing to watch two hours of edge-of-your-seat  drama unfold, with the winner emerging only in the last minute. Not even “Twightligt: New Moon” could match this matinee’s intensity.

Was it simply asking too much for Bonita to beat its close rival three straight times?

“It was mentally tough,” Contreras admitted. “We talked about that, trying to prepare ourselves not to be overconfident.”

Bonita had come within four points in the pivotal fourth set of bringing home a championship, but the knock-out eluded the Bearcats.

“That was our best chance,” Contreras said. “What killed us was our serving and our serving-team passing. We couldn’t get the ball to our setters to get the proper attack.”

LaPierre, the team’s UCLA-bound leader, knew Bonita faced a tough task regardless of the Bearcats’ earlier success against Los Altos.

“They wanted it a lot,” LaPierre said. “They were ready to come at us because we had beaten them twice. We missed way too many serves. We weren’t meshing as a team. We had moments, and some of us had really great moments, but we couldn’t sustain it through the whole match, and hats off to them, they did.”

Always the competitor, LaPierre mentioned there’s an outside possibility that the two teams could meet again in the state playoffs. “I’m personally excited about state,” LaPierre said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to see them again. And hopefully, this time we’ll realize that it won’t just come to us; we have to earn it.

“We kind of got used to just getting it. They’re not going to give it to us. We have to fight for every point.”

Bonita volleyball might not be able to call itself a CIF champion yet, but the players know they have nearly all the qualities of a CIF champion. They just need to decide now if that title, whatever it signifies and symbolizes to each player, is worth all the sweat, heartache, toil, commitment and dedication to claim it.

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