The Devil Dome was a verifiable inferno on Saturday night.
Playing in front of their largest crowd of the year, with fans crammed along the baselines in a match that, in hindsight, probably should have been played at a larger venue like Kezar Pavilion, the University Red Devils swept the Aragon Dons (25-22, 25-20, 25-16) to finish with a perfect 13-0 home record and advance to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Northern California Division II Championship on Tuesday night, when they’ll visit top-seeded Clovis North.
“It’s the dream,” senior Lucy Welch said after recording 10 kills in a superb performance. “We have such a great fanbase. It’s like we’re living in a movie. We just keep on winning, and we’re so together as a team on the court.”
A gym meant to hold a couple hundred fans at most had considerably more in attendance for Saturday’s Northern California semifinal, with good-natured chants back-and-forth between Dons and Red Devils fans seated alongside one another. Spectators who arrived after the first serve and couldn’t find seats ended up sitting on the floor along the baselines, and the packed building helped increase the temperature in a gym that’s normally well air-conditioned.
“It was a real pressure cooker,” head coach Bob Hillman said. “We’re comfortable here.”
While the crowd and temperature helped contribute to the atmosphere, the biggest advantage the Devil Dome creates in terms of actual gameplay comes from its low roof, something teams like third-seeded Aragon (26-10) typically don’t have to deal with.
“I was joking with their coach about how small our gym is and how low our roof is, and I’ve had that conversation before every state match, because we’ve played schools that are two-and-a-half to five times our size,” Hillman said after defeating the Dons, who come from a school of nearly 1,800 students. “We’re in a neighborhood. Half the teams walk by our door before realizing it’s a school. They think it’s just a townhouse.”
That low roof helped create an advantage for second-seeded University (28-6) in a tight first set, one where the Red Devils struggled with service errors before finally finding some stability in Mila Chan and Dani Lee. Chan engineered a 5-0 run to put the hosts up 13-9, and after three straight Kinnari Atluru kills gave University a 22-21 advantage, the Dons couldn’t return a Lee serve for set point and one of her three aces.
Lee’s serving was critical in closing the second set for the hosts, and it carried over to the third frame as well, where the Devils absolutely blitzed an Aragon side that had matched them pound-for-pound until that point. University led 15-3 and 20-8 thanks before the Dons finally went on a run of their own, but by that point, the match was well in hand.
“With Aragon, you want to slow down their middles,” Hillman said. We were trying to get as many blockers up on them as possible, slow balls down and force them to tip. Their libero was an excellent passer, but we managing to get it it away from her, and there was a little serving trouble to the right of the court.”
Atluru had a match-high 18 kills to lead University, while Chan had 12. Lee had 45 assists and libero Nicki Gaito had 14 digs. Sophomore Sophie Rubinstein led Aragon with eight kills; Jordan Lee and Grace Nai each had seven. Jordan Lee also had 12 assists and Kathleen Suayan recorded 10 digs.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]