Slammin’ Home: Championship Season in Review

The Albany Cougars Varsity Volleyball team ended a miracle playoff run in the California Interscholastic Federation Division III Championship Match, losing to Cathedral Catholic High School of San Diego, 25-15, 23-25, 21-25, 31-29, 16-14.

But rather than focusing only on a two-point loss that would’ve given Albany its first-ever state athletic title, let’s celebrate what can only be described as “one hell of a season.” Hollywood would have a hard time recreating the drama that the Cougars provided for the Albany fans and community.

Make no mistake about this miracle season. What the Cougars achieved was not through an act of divine intervention, but rather a culmination of hard work, dedication, and grit when they had their backs regularly pinned against the wall.

Date back to October 15. In the final match of a daylong tournament, the Cougars lost in straight sets to rival Salesian High School, showing what some said was little effort.

“I saw the team coasting through the schedule and not living up to their potential,” said second-year coach Roger Worsley. “Seeing them under perform, I needed to push some buttons. I gave them a challenge and they responded.”

Worseley called for 5:00 a.m. practices the Monday following the loss. Added to this dilemma, the team’s roster was down five members, due to injuries and other off-field issues.

“It was a struggling time, but from it we learned how to be a team,” senior captain and setter McKenzie Giblin said. “We got ourselves straightened out.”

The practices paid off. Reestablishing their hard-hitting mentality and orchestrating better ball movement, the Cougars went undefeated the rest of the regular season.They finished with a 13-0 record, and did not have to play more than three sets until the BSAL Championship in a rematch against Salesian. It was evident that the Cougars never took their foot off the gas pedal.

“It really showed that hard work pays off,” junior hitter Kyra Holt added. “We were more mature, held our composure, and we stayed together as a team.”

But teamwork can only carry the group so far. The Cougars also had phenomenal athletes, led by BSAL Most Valuable Player Kyra Holt, who was also named to the State All-Tournament Team and was the Cal-Hi Sports Bay Area NCS Player of the Year. Other top performers included senior middle hitters Maddy Dunn and Kariana Castanon-Hill, sophomore middle hitter Amber Erhahon, and junior outside hitter Marin Gibson. A side note about these big guns—they are all six-feet or taller.

“Kyra is the hammer on the court,” Erhahon said. “She’s the definition of power, and she’s a leader on the court—a home base for us to regroup during a match.”

This group of sheer power would not have reached its full potential without Giblin, however. The captain has been the starting varsity setter all four years of her high school career. Worsley commented, “Watching McKenzie progress over the last two years, she’s come a long way. Before she seemed to press a lot, but now she’s much more understanding of the ebb and flow of the game.”

He added: “She also has a better mental approach and comprehension of the setter position.”

Another impact player bringing the talent together is sophomore Brooke Tannahill, who took the reigns of libero in only her second year of varsity play.

“For someone playing the position for the first time, she’s great,” Giblin said of Tannahill, “and she’s always looking to get better. You don’t see that maturity and fire in an underclassman.”

It was with this group of starters that the Cougars earned the number three seed for North Coast Section playoffs. First ousting six-seed Analy, Albany went into a hostile environment to upset the two-seed Campolindo High School—the favorite to win NCS. It was also here that the Cougars started playing the role of the comeback kids.

“It was a rivalry game we had to win,” Dunn said of the Campolindo victory. “When we were down after the first set, Coach Worsley said he wasn’t ready to stop being our coach this season, and that really set us off. We were on fire from that point and redeemed ourselves.”

After an upset of the one-seed Miramonte on the other side of the bracket by Sir Francis Drake High School, the Cougars had an opportunity to win NCS on their home court against the Drake Pirates. Winning the first two sets easily but faltering in game three, the Cougars showed enough poise to pull it out, 25-19, 25-19, 22-25, 25-23.

“Watching Drake in the past, we knew exactly what they were going to do,” Erhahon spoke of winning NCS. “It was a great game plan and we stuck it to them.”

With the win, the Cougars clinched the number three seed in the NorCal State Volleyball Tournament.

In the first round, Albany routed Christian Brothers High School at home, 25-16, 25-18, 25-23.

The second round game forced the Cougars to drive to Folsom to play Vista del Lago High School. Again they found themselves backed into a corner.

“They thought they had it in the bag when they won that third game,” assistant coach Lynn Hall said. “We just said ‘hell no’ and came back. Once we tied it up, the whole gym went quiet and we knew it was ours to take.”

The Cougars beat Vista del Lago 12-25, 25-19, 14-25, 25-23, 15-10.

To advance to the State Finals, the Cougars needed to win the NorCal final against heavily favored Sacred Heart Cathedral of San Francisco. Albany took the first two games, but let the Fighting Irish come back to tie it up. Albany won the decisive fifth set to earn the trip to Irvine, 27-25, 25-19, 16-25, 23-25, 15-11.

On the win, Hall said, “People thought that once they were back in it, we had no chance. But like a cat with nine lives, we hung around, out-executed, and won.” Hall added: “Not being a big school is a big advantage, since most teams have never heard of us and don’t have tapes on us.”

It was going to be Albany’s first appearance in a state title match for volleyball in the school’s history. Sacrificing valuable class time, the school held a pep rally on December 1st, two days before the match, to send the team off in high spirits.

“We wanted to make sure the team would carry a piece of the school, the students and the community,” said Albany High Principal Ted Barone. “It was nice to see everyone be involved for such a special occasion.”

The Cougars then made the trip down to Concordia University in Irvine with one goal in mind: take home a state title. To do this, they would have to defeat powerhouse Cathedral Catholic High School, the SoCal representatives who had won every set so far in playoffs. The stage was set for a David vs. Goliath match up, as Cathedral Catholic had won the state title in 2008, 2009, and was the runner-up last year.

“It was going to be a matter of game plan and execution,” Hall said.

And execute they did. After getting blown out in the first set, 25-15, the Cougars responded by taking the next two sets, 25-23 and 25-21. The Cougars overcame deficits of as much as seven points to steal the match’s momentum.

“We weren’t ready to go down, and we gave them all we got,” Dunn said.

A late charge by the Dons and some sloppy play from the Cougars took the title right out of their reach, as they faltered 31-29 and 16-14 to finish just shy of the ultimate prize.

“We couldn’t have been better prepared. We just got out performed,” Hall said of the defeat. “It was a learning loss though, and we went out playing the Albany style of play that got us here.”

Though the season ended with a loss, it was the first match Cathedral Catholic played where they were challenged until the last point. There is also a beneficial factor of the loss that will help the team in the future.

“How far we got was nothing short of what I expected,” Worsley concluded. “It was a season of discovery. The girls saw what they had to do to fight within themselves to come out on top. They now understand what to expect of themselves.”