The St. Ignatius Wildcats felt the heat on Tuesday night, both figuratively and literally.
Opening their season on the road against Burlingame before a spirited crowd in a gym that felt like a boiler room, they dropped their first set of the season before rallying to win the next three for a four-set victory, making a winner out of Saga Vae in his head coaching debut.
Trailing 6-2 in the second set, the Wildcats slowly but surely worked their way back, drawing even at 14 and then closing on an 11-4 run, with Suraya Newman recording five of her 13 kills in the set, a performance she credited to Vae’s mid-match adjustments.
“He helped us with blocking the outside strong hitter, and it really helped us finish that second set,” Newman said.
Only a junior, Newman is already one of the leaders and most experienced members of the St. Ignatius (1-0) roster. Seven seniors graduated from the 2021-22 team, leaving her in a position to step up.
“Suraya’s a very quiet, humble person, and she’s learning to be more vocal,” Vae said. “We didn’t use her enough early in the match, and she started demanding the ball more.”
The Wildcats controlled the third set, winning 25-19 as junior middle blocker Josslyn Jones dominated the front of the net. Her early struggles allowed Burlingame (3-2) to control the first set, winning it 25-17, but Jones settled in as the match went on and helped clean up the errors that had put SI in an early hole.
“She held it together for the team,” Vae said of Jones. “She had been out sick for a week and a half and only practiced yesterday, but we only have two middles.”
DePaul commit Nora Mannion had three digs in the third set and five more in the final frame, a back-and-forth affair that the Wildcats won by taking seven of the final 10 points. Skye Smolinski, who also had five digs in the fourth set, recorded the final two kills. Smolinski had six in the fourth set and 13 for the match.
The experienced core of Mannion, Newman and Smolinski helped the Wildcats overcome a slow start against a Panthers team already playing their fifth game, having competed in the Peninsula Classic over the weekend against the likes of Marin Catholic, one of the region’s top programs. Burlingame also had the support of a spirited home crowd, with much of the school’s football team packing the stands after practice, but the atmosphere didn’t deter the visitors.
“We had experience last year from our Bruce-Mahoney series (against archrival Sacred Heart Cathedral),” Newman said. “We played in front of 2,000 people, so as a core, we knew what it felt like already.”
That experience, combined with Vae’s positive outlook, helped the visitors overcome five service errors in the first set alone.
“He’s brought a lot of energy, especially during practices,” Newman said of her new head coach, who had previously served for a decade as the head coach at City College at San Francisco.
The Wildcats return to action on Thursday for their home opener, a 6:30 p.m. tilt with Lowell.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]