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University falls to top seed in Northern California volleyball final

University outside hitter Kinnari Atluru (11) receives instructions from head coach Bob Hillman during the second set of the Red Devils’ victory over Branham in the California Interscholastic Federation Division II Tournament in San Francisco on Nov. 10, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

The University Red Devils went as far as they could, both literally and figuratively.

Their season finally came to an end on Tuesday night, 192 miles from campus, in a closely fought four-set loss to the top-seeded Clovis North Broncos in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division II Northern California Championship (19-25, 20-25, 25-16, 24-26).

Even after dropping the first two sets in a best-of-five match for just the second time all season, University (28-7) had the Broncos sweating. The Devils jumped out to a 15-6 lead in Set 3 and led by as much as 10 on a Kinnari Atluru on the way to a 25-16 win, and matched Clovis North (28-10) pound-for-pound in the fourth set, tying the Broncos at 22 and 24.

For a moment, the visiting Devils thought they had taken a 25-24 lead in the fourth set on an Atluru spike that landed right along the boundary. Despite the pleas of the spirited contingent of University fans that had made the lengthy trip to the Fresno suburb, the referees couldn’t come to a conclusion and ultimately decided to replay the point.

“I was fighting for that point,” Atluru said. “Calls don’t go your way sometimes.”

University’s next two shots both went long. Game over, season over.

“I just tried to move on to the next point, and unfortunately, I made a couple errors,” Atluru said.

Coming up painstakingly short after a three-and-a-half hour bus trip understandably left a sour taste in the Devils’ mouth, but it didn’t obscure their perspective.

“We never expected to come this far,” Atluru said. “We’re a tiny private school from San Francisco out here playing giant public schools.”

University, with an enrollment of roughly 420 students, was the smallest of the 16 Northern California schools in the Division II field. All four of the Devils’ state tournament opponents had at least 1,750 students, and Clovis North’s enrollment is in excess of 2,500.

In their prior three matches, the Red Devils had been able to take opponents out of their comfort zone by making them play in a tiny gym, and University used the packed house and low roof to create an insurmountable home court advantage. On Tuesday night, they were the ones in unfamiliar territory, playing in a gym so large that it boasts an arena-style center-hung scoreboard.

“There was something fun about being on the road today,” head coach Bob Hillman said. “It felt like we were doing something momentous, traveling to Fresno to play in a giant gym.”

The team bus left San Francisco at noon, and the ride was one to remember, with players singing throughout the entirety of the trip.

In addition to playing in unfamiliar quarters, the Devils were playing below full strength. Yes, they did have all seven members of their rotation, but Mila Chan was battling constant cramps after dealing with illness over the past week. Sophomore Dani Lee was sick on Tuesday, and while she did end up playing, it clearly affected her performance.

Those obstacles helped put University into a hole after the first two sets. Clovis North won nine of the final 13 points in Set 2 to put the Devils on the brink of elimination before University put up one last inspired rally.

“I think it was just sheer determination,” Atluru said. “We just said to ourselves, ‘We’re winning this set. I don’t care if we sacrifice our bodies for it, we’re winning.’ We did, and I think that’s as much as you can ask for.”

Tuesday marked University’s fourth appearance in a Northern California volleyball final, and the school’s first since 2004. All three prior appearances were in Division V under the CIF’s old enrollment-based system.

“I don’t know if we could have competed any harder tonight or this season,” Hillman said.

There’s plenty of reason for the Bay Counties League West Division Champions and North Coast Section (NCS) Division 3 runners-up to be optimistic moving forward. They graduate just three seniors, and only one, Lucy Welch, was part of Hillman’s main seven-player rotation.