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St. Ignatius extends rivalry streak to five with furious finish

The St. Ignatius Wildcats celebrate their five-set victory over Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

It wouldn’t make sense for most high school volleyball coaches to keep 21 players on their roster.

It’s simply too many people to keep track of, too many grade checks to worry about, and in most cases, it’s silly to keep players that won’t see any time.

At St. Ignatius, depth is the Wildcats’ strength, and nearly every member of the roster who suited up for Thursday night’s win at Sacred Heart Cathedral played a part in a dramatic five-set victory, SI’s fifth straight win over the Fightin’ Irish (22-25, 25-17, 21-25, 25-21, 15-13).

“We have some of the best depth on the bench in Northern California,” head coach Saga Vae said. “We don’t have that one big player, but we have a lot of girls that we can depend on.”

Whether it was Alice Taylor in the second set, Mary Grace O’Keeffe in Set 4 or Liana Mei registering the final two kills in the fifth set as St. Ignatius (12-11, 3-3 West Catholic Athletic League) won seven of the final eight points for a dramatic road win, it was a team effort in every sense.

“I’ve never been on a team this deep,” Taylor said.

Sacred Heart Cathedral (11-8, 2-4) looked far better than the team that SI swept in the Bruce-Mahoney Game three weeks earlier, riding strong performances from Lydia Valle-Jhanda, Meghan Williams and Sarah Caulder to push the Wildcats to the brink. Valle-Jhanda’s spike ended the longest rally of the night to give SHC a 9-6 advantage that felt almost insurmountable, and Caulder extended the lead to 12-8 before SI’s final rally.

“I’m really impressed with how poised we stayed,” Wildcats libero Nora Mannion said. “They were just swinging a lot harder, and it took our defense a lot of time to adjust to it.”

St. Ignatius senior Nora Mannion (4) fires up her teammates before the fifth and final set of the Wildcats' victory over Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Mannion, a DePaul commit who’s been playing through turf toe for the last three weeks, had a game-high 24 digs. On a team with just six seniors, Mannion serves as the emotional leader and delivered a fiery speech before the decisive fifth set.

“Even with her injury, the team needs her on the court,” Vae said. “She has a lot of value and a lot of leadership.”

With two WCAL meetings last year, an early-season tournament victory this year and two WCAL meetings in the past month, the Wildcats haven’t lost to the Fightin’ Irish since 2019.

“This rivalry brings a lot more energy than any other game,” Wildcats setter Tara Hagan said.

For most of the night, it looked like SHC would break that streak. Valle-Jhanda, who returned from a sprained ankle three weeks ago, came out firing in the first set, and Williams countered Josslyn Jones at the net to help the hosts take Set 3.

Lydia Valle-Jhanda (2) serves during the first set of Sacred Heart Cathedral's five-set loss to St. Ignatius in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

“We’ve been working on serving, doing a lot of mental drills and a lot of pressure drills to get ready for the second round of league,” first-year head coach Symone Mackiewicz said of her team’s development. “This just shows how much they’ve improved.”

Two points by Caulder, sandwiched around a Sarah Chow ace, put SHC up by four in the fifth set before the visitors fired back, getting points from Skye Smolinski and O’Keeffe. Jones, who finished with eight kills, cut the lead to 12-11.

“When you get blocked, there’s a big difference between saying, ‘Set me again,’ and saying, ‘I don’t wanna be set,’” Jones said. “That was the ‘set me again’ mentality.” 

Mei, who had a team-high 18 kills despite only playing in three of SI’s six rotations, dealt the finishing blow.

Liana Mei (28) sets a ball during the third set of St. Ignatius' five-set victory over Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif. on Oct. 6, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

“All the seniors really wanted to win,” Mei said. “The opposing fans are all staring you down, and you’re trying to keep locked in. There’s so much pressure, but you just have to find a way to overcome that.”

Caulder, one of 10 juniors on Mackiewicz’s roster, nearly led the Irish to victory.

Sarah Caulder goes up for a spike during the first set of Sacred Heart Cathedral's five-set loss to St. Ignatius in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

“The first time we played, she was a little nervous,” Mackiewicz said. “She’s more in her comfort zone now. We’ve been giving her a lot of confidence because she doesn’t know how great she is.”

SHC had an early 6-2 advantage in the first set, but fell behind 21-19 before winning six of the last seven points to close the opening set.

“We seem to dig ourselves into holes, but we know how to dig ourselves out of them,” Hagan said.

The Wildcats dominated the second frame, leading 18-9 before letting up, but the Irish dominated Set 3, taking a 19-11 advantage behind Williams. Suraya Newman, making her first appearance since breaking her right pinky in the Bruce-Mahoney victory, was crucial for SI in the fourth set.

“You can’t teach heart,” Vae said of his team’s effort.

St. Ignatius hosts Mitty (20-5, 5-1) at 6 p.m. next Wednesday. SHC hosts St. Francis (20-0, 6-0), the top-ranked team in Northern California, at the same time.