Tuesday night’s regular season finale between the Lowell Cardinals and Balboa Buccaneers was both a spectator’s dream and a coach’s nightmare.
The Academic Athletic Association (AAA) regular season title came down to the final set on the final night of the regular season, and host Lowell came out as outright champions for a third season in a row with a five-set win (25-18, 21-25, 25-14, 23-25, 15-7).
“They kept us on our toes and gave us a good run,” Lowell head coach Samantha Woo said.
Second-place Balboa (22-6, 12-2 AAA) gave the Cardinals all they could handle, rallying to take seven of the final 10 points in Set 4 to force a decisive fifth frame, but middle blocker Monika Brinlee dominated the fifth set to help the Cardinals secure their third straight title. They also tied for the regular season championship in the 2018-19 season.
“We could have definitely finished it off in the fourth set, but we took some deep breaths and realized we still had to finish it,” said Brinlee, who had four of her 11 kills in the tiebreaker set.
The visiting Buccaneers won the opening point of the fifth set, fighting off multiple inspired Cardinal digs, but Lowell (23-12, 14-0) went on to win the next six points and take control, including five with Genevieve Cragg serving.
Cragg finished the night with seven aces, including four in the third set, and Lowell’s biggest runs of the night seemed to always correspond with her serves. Balboa did get the next three points thanks to Amara Banez and Nalia Faataui, but Brinlee finished the match in style.
“She had a couple bad hits in the first couple sets, but she adjusted,” Woo said of Brinlee.
Had the Cardinals not slipped at the end of the fourth set, Cragg would have been the story of the night. Though Lowell dropped the second set, the Cardinals had found their footing after falling into a 19-14 hole, and they raced out to an 11-1 lead in Set 3 with Cragg serving.
“We’re pretty scrappy in a good sense,” Cragg said. “We pick everything up, we know how to play smart and we have the ability to cover everything and see where the ball’s going.”
Faataui trimmed the lead to 18-13, but Lowell won seven of the final eight points to cleanly win the third set. The hosts led 20-17 in the fourth set with Piper Loo’s blocks off the bench inching the Cardinals closer, but Lowell made 10 errors in the set, giving Balboa a chance to rally. Jillian Lee’s block cut the lead to 20-18, back-to-back Siolo kills put the Buccaneers in front and a double hit called against Lowell took the match to a decisive fifth frame.
“I was really happy with how we played,” Balboa head coach Val Cubales said. “I thought we played a lot better this game than we did the last game.”
His team was swept by the Cardinals at home on Sept. 30.
“The first time we played them, it was definitely our game,” Woo said. “This time around, it was a little bit of both sides.”
Eyeballing the two teams would suggest Balboa has a decisive advantage in size and strength, while Lowell needs to rely on passing and defense, but the Cardinals showed they could hold their own in a physical affair.
“It’s always something that’s a little hidden,” Mika Nguyen said of her team’s strength.
Nguyen had a team-high 13 digs. While much of Lowell’s offense runs through the 5-foot-11 Brinlee, it wasn’t until the fifth set that she really took over. Until then, it was a balanced attack, with Loo, a sophomore who had transferred from nearby Lincoln, registering a game-high 13 kills.
While Lowell has just four seniors rostered, including Cragg and Nguyen, Balboa’s big three of Faataui, Siolo and Amara Banez are all seniors. As the second seed, the Buccaneers have a direct bye into next Tuesday’s semifinal, which they’ll need to win to earn one more shot at the Cardinals.
“We have to work on our serve receive,” Cubales added.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]