The Lowell Cardinals girls volleyball team has been the best in the Academic Athletic Association (AAA) for years, success recently highlighted by championship victories in 2019 and 2021. After they defeated the Balboa Buccaneers last week in five sets to claim the regular season title, one had to wonder if the Buccaneers’ competitiveness in that game would carry over to Friday night’s rematch in the AAA championship at Kezar Pavilion.
For much of the match, it did. But Lowell proved too strong yet again, winning in four sets, three of which came down to the wire (25-12, 23-25, 25-23, 26-24).
“Both sides really wanted the game tonight; it was just a matter of who was going to fight for it more,” Lowell head coach Samantha Woo said. “I feel a bajillion emotions—very overwhelmed, it was very stressful, but very happy that it ended the way we wanted it to.”
The lopsided result of the first set, which Monika Brinlee clinched with a kill, signaled that Lowell was poised to dominate. The Cardinals won the first four points and aced the Buccaneers seven times, in large part because of their opponent’s sloppy receiving. Each of the final three sets, however, changed the course of the story; Balboa even won Set Two.
With Balboa leading 23-17, Lowell clawed its way back by winning six of the next seven points. That’s when Balboa head coach Val Cubales called timeout.
“I wanted to keep them aggressive,” Cubales said. “I know in the game of volleyball when you score three points in a row there’s a momentum kick; it was mainly also a timeout to somehow stop the moment.”
His decision paid off, as one of the highlights of the night for Balboa came during the next point when senior captain Yaya Siolo smashed a kill to tie up the match.
In Set 3, with the score tied at 22, Balboa’s weakest phase was exposed, just as it had been in Set 1, with two consecutive mistakes on serve receive. A Buccaneers infraction handed the Cardinals the third set victory.
Set 4 was just as close, as the score reached a tie at both 22 and 23. The Buccaneers even had a set point to send the match to a winner-take-all fifth set, but the balls didn’t bounce in their favor.
“They made a strong effort to stay ahead, but balls were going back and forth and fell down on our side of the court,” Cubales said of his team.
Lowell won the final three points of that set via a Balboa attacking error, an ace, then a clinching kill from left-handed sophomore Piper Loo.
“I went for it and trusted my gut,” said Loo, who finished the game with nine kills, third-highest on the team. Genevieve Cragg led Lowell’s attack with 14 kills; Madeline Yang followed with 11.
Looking ahead, both teams will compete for the state championship starting next week. On Monday, the teams will find out in which division they will compete.
The Cardinals-Buccaneers showdown will continue next season, although the Buccaneers will be without the strongest senior class they’ve had in a while, led by Siolo and Nalia Faataui. Still, losing key players won’t reduce their determination to flip the narrative.
“Lowell is always a team that we try to compete with, and I love playing against them,” Cubales said. “The better team won tonight, and we’ll try again next year.”
Both teams are headed for the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) State Tournament. They’ll receive their seeding on Sunday.
Gabe Fisher can be reached at [email protected]