The cliche “offense wins games, defense wins championships” has long been popular in sports, especially in football.
Defense didn’t win a championship for University’s volleyball team on Wednesday night, but it did win the Red Devils a semifinal.
The Red Devils avenged their lone best-of-five loss of the entire season, beating No. 2 Tamalpais in four sets (25-17, 20-25, 25-13, 25-22) to advance to Saturday night’s North Coast Section (NCS) Division 3 Championship against top-seeded Branson.
“We’re pretty relentless on defense,” first-year head coach Bob Hillman said. “We’ve worked this season on staying disciplined.”
While both teams showed plenty of power and blocking ability at the front of the net, third-seeded University (25-5) won behind a strong back line, with Nicki Gaito and Madeleine Dimitre’s digging ability giving the Red Devils the edge.
“They have two really crafty outside hitters who rarely hit it where you expect it to go,” Hillman said of the second-seeded Hawks. “You can get sucked in when you can decide they’ll hit it somewhere, and they’ll hit it somewhere else.”
Defense helped the Red Devils overcome a 13-4 deficit in the fourth set, but it would be easy to forget considering the memorable finish.
Lucy Welch and sophomore Damysia Walls were instrumental in digging the visitors out of the nine-point hole, and Kinnari Atluru’s kill tied the set at 22 before Mila Chan delivered back-to-back aces. Tamalpais (28-9) got called for a violation moments later to end the match.
“That’s not the first time she’s done that,” Hillman said of Chan. “She also took over the end of the second Marin Academy match. She stays really calm under pressure and has delivered for the team over and over again.”
The lone semifinalist to come from outside of Marin County in the Division 3 field, University will visit reigning champion Branson (17-10) at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
“Not only did we technically do well, we were really supportive of each other,” Gaito said. “Most of it’s the mental game. We pick each other up on defense, and we’re always really excited for each other.”
The flow of the fourth set was wildly different than that of the third, which the Devils dominated from start to finish, leading 7-2 and 15-6 en route to a comfortable 25-13 win.
“Our passing got a lot better,” sophomore Dani Lee said. “As long as we were winning the passing and serving battles, we were able to convert.”
While Wesley Slavin and Natalia Clifford dominated all night for the Red-Tailed Hawks, Ella Hammack and freshman Katherine Moriarty had Tamalpais in control early in the fourth set before University fired back.
“We had to weather the storm,” Welch said. “That’s kind of what we’ve been doing all season. Our passers dug so many great balls.”
Hillman rotated just seven players throughout the match, as he’s done for most of the season. In the fourth set, it was Walls, a sophomore who rotates in and out, that helped lead the comeback.
“She’s not one of our bigger hitters, but she’s someone I can rely on to find kills no matter what,” Lee said of her fellow sophomore.
Whether it was Atluru denying shots at the net for the Red Devils or Clifford and Slavin forming a wall for the Hawks, typical spikes were often blocked by both teams. Instead, kills often came through creative taps to unconventional areas on the floor, and even from mishits that landed in fortuitous spots.
Luck seemed to be on the Hawks’ side with those mishits throughout the second set as Tam overcame a 14-10 deficit behind Slavin and libero Malia Parsons to even the match up at a set apiece.
“We let them hang around instead of putting the pressure on them,” Hillman said of the second set. “We didn’t communicate as well, and we were a little hesitant and let some balls drop between us.”
Those same issues resurfaced in the fourth set, and Hillman used both of his timeouts before the teams had combined to play 20 points. The quick trigger worked, and the Red Devils will play for a section championship on Saturday night.
They won an NCS crown in 2019, but that was in Division 4. They were elevated to Division 3 following the 2021 season. Saturday’s opponent, Branson, was pulled up from Division 4 after winning an NCS title in 2018. The Bulls won Division 3 in both 2019 and 2021, and also won Division 4 in 2016. By enrollment, Branson would belong in NCS Division 5, but ran roughshod over similarly sized schools for years. The Bulls reached the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division V Championship in seven straight seasons from 2009 through 2015, winning five times.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]