SACRAMENTO — Kylee Hardy’s ear-to-ear grin hid the fact she and her El Dorado teammates were engaged in last Thursday’s pressurized, fight-for-your-life second-round Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoff match against Rio Americano. Soon, her grin reflected the visiting Lady Cougars’ 3-set upset of the 5th-seeded Raiders.
El Dorado’s stunning 25-22, 25-22, 26-24 victory featured clutch plays throughout and advanced the Cougars to tomorrow’s semifinals at Oakmont.
“We’ve been practicing for this one since the brackets came out. I think they overlooked us thinking we weren’t a threat,” a still beaming Hardy said afterwards. “Right now we’re just playing as one — after we won the second set I knew we couldn’t be stopped.
The team’s ‘we’ve hit our stride’ mentality from its players to coach Sharon Hardy is timely. From the match’s very first play, El Dorado, the 13th seed, went toe-to-toe with favored Rio.
“After that first rally I thought ‘Whoa, this will be a battle,’” coach Hardy said. “Rio has a lot of solid kids and one of the top coaches in the area but they weren’t expecting us and probably underestimated us. We are peaking right now. I saw all the things we’ve practiced on in this match (tonight).”
Cougar serves, most notably from Kristen Van Glider and Sabrina Tate, forced the Raiders out of system. El Dorado also foiled the hosts’ tip strategy, primarily due to Courtney Macklin’s ability as middle to get a piece of the action coming across the net, especially early.
“That was really tense but it feels so good (to win) and now we’re excited to play Oakmont,” Macklin said. “We just wanted to go out and compete from the first point and that’s what we did.”
After falling to Rio at the Craft Tournament in September, El Dorado had no choice Thursday but to compete because the alternative — losing — ended the season. The Cougars received a stellar performance from Lena Gavin whose knack to find open space on her hits frustrated the Raiders all night long.
“I had the corners all day. Sharon (coach Hardy) had been telling me that and it stuck in my head …. that and being smart at placing the ball,” Gavin said. “We just kept making goals for ourselves tonight and paced ourselves — we were humble but consistent. We’ve been clicking lately and the past couple weeks we’re a completely different team. It’s the biggest transformation I’ve ever seen.”
Van Gilder’s six-point service run opened up an El Dorado lead in the first set and it was 19-10 after a Gavin ace. Rio rallied to close the gap but the Cougars took it on Tate’s clutch dig that led to Kylee’s set for Macklin’s deflected kill.
The second set was tight. Kyle’s back set for Kylie Haverson’s kill tied the score at 5-5 and Mackenzie Newman’s kill off the block put El Dorado in front. Haverson, a freshman, Niemann, Keely Franz and libero Piper Raleigh complimented the play of Gavin, Macklin, Tate, Van Gilder and Kylee as the Cougars never trailed after breaking an 11-all tie.
Rio raced out to a 5-1 advantage in the third set before El Dorado chipped away. The Cougars took their first lead at 16-15 as ties and lead-changes dominated the final stretch.
El Dorado took the lead at 18-17 on Macklin’s kill; tied on Franz’ cross court spike; retied on Haverson’s hit off the block; went up on Kylee’s ‘somehow’ save that the Raiders blasted out; and extended on Niemann’s huge block to force a Rio timeout.
It was 23-23 after Franz’ tip before the Placerville squad went up as Gavin’s two-handed finesse shot ran parallel to the net. The Raiders scraped to make it 24s before Kylee passed to Gavin for back-to-back kills to end it.