Ask any coach what makes high school volleyball so special, and they’ll more or less give the same answer.
“It’s about playing for your teammates and your school. Club volleyball is about playing for yourself, but high school volleyball is about playing for your team.”
Middle hitter Suraya Newman exemplified that spirit perfectly on Wednesday night, playing through a dislocated finger to lead St. Ignatius to a three-set victory (25-23, 25-23, 25-18) over rival Sacred Heart Cathedral before a sold-out War Memorial Gym as the Wildcats opened West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) play on a positive note and won the first leg of the annual Bruce-Mahoney Series.
“My teammates took the energy that was already there and boosted me up throughout the game,” Newman said.
Newman, who dislocated her right pinky during warmups before last Friday’s match with Marin Catholic, missed most of the second set after needing further bandages on her hand, but returned with the score tied at 20 and hardly left the court the rest of the way. The results were evident as Newman’s spike clinched the second set for St. Ignatius (7-4, 1-0 WCAL), and the Wildcats pulled away throughout the third set to sweep the Fightin’ Irish.
The Wildcats have swept the Fightin’ Irish both times in the two years since volleyball has been added to the Bruce-Mahoney series, but Wednesday’s match was much closer than the 2021 edition. Sacred Heart Cathedral (5-4, 0-1) overcame a serious size disadvantage to match SI pound-for-pound throughout the first two sets, never trailing by more than three points until running out of steam in the third.
“I think we just gassed out,” first-year head coach Symone Mackiewicz said. “We were right there.”
The third set belonged to Skye Smolinski, a UC Davis beach volleyball commit. Smolinski converted six of her nine attempts in the third set into kills and had a team-high 14 kills for the match.
“We just communicated a lot better and got comfortable playing with each other,” Smolinski said of the dominant third set. “We didn’t let up just because we were up two sets.”
Considering that the Wildcats were reintroducing both Newman and DePaul commit Nora Mannion to the lineup, an adjustment period was understandable. Mannion, who recorded 21 digs from the libero position, had been sidelined for the past week with a toe injury.
“There was no way she was missing this game,” first-year head coach Saga Vae said with a smile. “She took care of herself and did what she had to do to get back on the court.”
As both a defensive leader and an emotional leader, Mannion played both for herself and Reanna Yadao. The only other senior in SI’s regular starting lineup, Yadao missed Wednesday’s match with a sprained ankle.
“I just wanted to be back for my teammates and play for Reanna,” Mannion said. “Injuries have been tough, but we proved tonight that we can get through it. Last week was rough, and we decided today was the turning point. We’re just gonna ride this wave.”
Mannion’s return was a key factor in helping the Wildcats snap a three-game losing streak, and it gave her team a standout defender to match SHC’s Kiana Paredes.
“She’s got the biggest presence,” Mackiewicz said of Paredes, who stands at just 5-foot-3. “She’s the kind one that lights everybody’s fire and she’s just a force to be reckoned with on the court. Other teams are lucky she’s not six feet tall, because she plays like she is.”
Paredes, Kate Lau and Sarah Caulder helped the Irish match SI pound-for-pound throughout the first set, playing to a 23-23 tie before a Mannion dig led to a Liana Mei kill, setting up Tara Hagan to secure the first set for the ‘Cats with an ace. SHC held an 18-15 lead in Set 2, feeding off Lau’s presence in front of the net, but Newman’s return fueled St. Ignatius. The Wildcats dominated much of the third set, save for a 5-1 SHC run that cut the lead to 17-15. SI took six of the next eight points, including a fierce block by Mariel Rocca to extend the advantage to 23-17, before finishing the match off with an Emma Burns kill from the right side.
The win provides a sense of stability for the Wildcats as they enter their toughest stretch of the entire season. They’ll be competing in Las Vegas at the Durango Classic this weekend before taking on WCAL powerhouses Mitty and St. Francis next week, both on the road. St. Francis is the presumptive favorite to win the league. The Lancers haven’t dropped a single set so far this season, a feat that’s been replicated at the JV and freshman levels.
SHC will compete at the Presentation Tournament in San Jose on Saturday. The Fightin’ Irish have a pair of WCAL matches at home next week against St. Francis and Valley Christian.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]